Rarely has the never-ending struggle between humanity and nature looked so much like a one-sided battle of wits as it does in Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, the story of self-styled naturalist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell's passion for nature led him to spend long summers camping with bear packs in Alaska. It took 13 years for him to discover that the bears could, and would, eat him.
Treadwell left behind friends and family, many of whom express grief (though not surprise) over his death. Treadwell also left behind more than 100 hours of movie footage taken over the course of his last five "expeditions." Herzog mostly lets Treadwell tell his own story, and while he probably couldn't have predicted the context in which he'd be playing that role, he's well-prepared for it. Delivering long monologues to the camera, Treadwell talks about his role as a "kind warrior" determined to "study and protect" his animal friends. On more than one occasion, he appears to suffer an on-camera nervous breakdown, and when he can think of nothing else to do, he trails after bears and foxes and tells them he loves them, as if repeating the sentiment enough times will drill it into their heads.
For much of the film, Treadwell could pass for a cracked kids' TV host, a persona that contributes to Grizzly Man's overall tone of real-life black comedy. Herzog goes deeper than gallows humor, however. In Treadwell, he's found a classic obsessive straight out of Aguirre: The Wrath Of God or Fitzcarraldo, and he clearly respects and understands his subject's commitment to filmmaking. But while Herzog occasionally protects his subject, he also honors his commitment to study him. Digging into Treadwell's past, Herzog reveals him as a failed actor with a past history of mental instability and substance abuse. Herzog doesn't seem as disturbed by these facts as he is by Treadwell's unshakable faith in his own sentimentalized view of nature. In spite of his years in the wild, he's driven to tears by his inability to understand, for instance, why a mean old wolf would kill a cute baby fox. That take on the world is far removed from Herzog's: Looking at footage of the bear that probably killed Treadwell, Herzog confesses that he sees no personality, only a "half-bored interest in food." But Herzog is still the only person who could have made Grizzly Man. His admiration for Treadwell has its limits, but he understands, better than most directors, what it means to follow dreams into the belly of the beast.