These are the questions Werner Herzog wants us to ponder about Timothy Treadwell, the naturalist and bear enthusiast who spent 13 summers camping in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska living with and filming the indigenous bear population. Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were eventually attacked and killed by one of those bears. The documentary attempts to recount the events in Treadwell's life that led to his unusual lifestyle and death.
For me, the film isn't about any of those questions though. Instead, it paints a portrait of a man who very egotistically disregarded the savage indifference of nature because he romanticized the existence of wild animals. And, he did all this at the expense of authentic human relationships. Grizzly Man is in many ways a tragedy about hubris and its destructive effects.
Through personal interviews and various video clips, Treadwell slowly emerges as someone very arrogant and exceedingly attention-starved. He bemoans his lack of a satisfying love life by spilling his guts to a bear, which seems almost comically indifferent to everything Treadwell says. We learn that he is a failed actor who lied about his background and even affected an Australian accent for a period in his life. And, we learn of his contentious relationship with the park service workers, many of whom felt Treadwell ended up doing more harm than good for the bears he purported to protect.
As a film, Treadwell's story is engrossing as we view clips of the hours and hours of video footage he took of his time out in the wilderness. Some of the images he captures have a grandeur and beauty that can only be found in the wild. But, there are moments, particularly when he interacts with the bears, in which you want to yell at the screen for him to move away or hide. In those moments, we are seeing a man almost delusional in his belief that these creatures are kindred spirits and that he can connect with them on a spiritual level.
So Grizzly Man works mainly as a cautionary tale about the dangers of inappropriate human interaction with nature and wild animals. It shows us a man who was largely disconnected from his fellow human beings and sought love and understanding in a world that could not offer them. Although Treadwell is someone to be pitied, the film wisely doesn't take an overly sympathetic view towards him and, in exchange, it offers us something to ponder about the realities of our own lives.