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[Part of the Family Movie Project]

MovieHype00663 – GRIZZLY MAN

April was my month for the Family Movie Project. I picked GRIZZLY MAN, a documentary that should have been nominated and won and Oscar over the lovable but ultimately facile MARCH OF THE PENGUINS. I don’t have anything against those cute little guys (although I get more and more mad at the filmmakers for tricking the audience into thinking that penguins experience human love instead of instinct), but whereas PENGUINS is pretty to look at and definitely a feel-good movie, GRIZZLY MAN is breathtaking for what we learn, and what we don’t.

The following contains MILD SPOILERS that must be discussed because they are essential to the movie.

Timothy Treadwell was a bear enthusiast, one of those guys like the Crocodile Hunter, who just explodes with passion about nature. For thirteen years Treadwell spent his summers with the bears in Katmai National Park in Alaska, living around, among and a part of the animals, filming almost every second.

The thirteenth season something terrible happened. Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie were both killed by a bear under circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery.

Famed and heralded filmmaker Werner Herzog has made a documentary about Treadwell’s life. He interviews Treadwell’s family and friends, the man who took them there, and found them too. Herzog talks to enemies, people who have barely disguised contempt for the bear enthusiast, some who think Treadwell basically got what he deserved.

If those aspects were the entire movie, GRIZZLY MAN would still be worth watching. Herzog is a master filmmaker, and thought I disagree with some of his positions (more on that in a minute), the insight gleaned about his mercurial subject is fascinating and imminently watchable.

But what sets GRIZZLY MAN apart, what made me pick a documentary and force my family to watch it is that over half of the 100 minute running time is Treadwell’s own footage.

Every year Timothy Treadwell would take his hundreds of hours of film he’d collected and make mini movies to educate people—especially children—show them the beauty of nature and these magnificent creatures. Treadwell became something of a household name, appearing on shows like Letterman and Dateline to promote his work.

What makes me pick this movie is watching Treadwell in action Herzog had access to all the raw footage, and shows us some of the behind-the-scenes stuff the public never got to see. Even without the knowledge of Treadwell’s death the film is riveting. Understanding the man was soon to die gives it an eerie air. Treadwell seemed constantly aware of how close he was to death. (Some critics say he had a death wish.) At times he almost sounds like Tupac or Biggie, constantly foreshadowing his own demise.

The raw footage is unparalleled in any nature film I have ever seen. When I tell you that Treadwell lived among these bears, I am absolutely not kidding or exaggerating one bit. Often Treadwell will be filming and a bear will be no more than 10 feet away.

I submit that if you showed this movie to someone who knew nothing about the situation, they would think it was all faked, Hollywood FX, planned and scripted; animal trainers with stun guns at the ready. That Treadwell was all alone in this makes it almost unbelievable.

Of course, Treadwell wasn’t completely alone the whole time. The last three summers his girlfriend Amie was with him, who also perished. This is my biggest bone of contention with the filmmaker. I watched a show on the Discovery Channel with Treadwell’s friends discussing the movie. Though it seems reasonable that they would want to take his side, what is also clear is that Amie Huguenard was very experienced with nature and committed to the project. I think Herzog takes her desire not to be in the way of the camera as evidence that she was somewhat unwilling to be there, and that Treadwell had no business forcing her to be.

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief: 0, although you’ll think much of the footage is fake. It’s all real; the only question is interpretation

Genre Grade: Documentary, A+. I won’t call this the most objective documentary ever, but it’s so informative and enlightening in its own way that it should have won the Oscar.

Sex/Violence/Nudity? There is no sex, and no violence, except for two bears who fight a pretty great duel. There is language which may be beeped out depending on the version you have. Middle School and up should be okay.

Kickassability: The guy lived for 13 different seasons with grizzly bears. Whatever else he is, he’s the Man for that. 58 (out of 100).

Pantheon Percentile: The watchability is not diminished by repeated viewings, and this is the kind of film you’ll want to get your friends to watch so you can talk about it. Cinematically at times GRIZZLY MAN rivals a great drama. 75.

There is also a question of how big a problem poaching is. The government officials along with Herzog dismiss this pretty readily, but further investigation shows that Treadwell was right to be so passionate on this issue.

But with any documentary you’re not getting truth, but one person’s version of it. (And we all know with recent documentaries, that “truth” can be more fiction than a Michael Bay film.) I trust you all are savvy enough to see that and not take the filmmaker’s view as gospel.

Ultimately what’s important is watching Treadwell. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how chilling it is to see him. It’s simply unbelievable. The man is an enigma, a contradictory character, and Herzog often shows him not at his best. (Although if you spent four and half months a year talking to yourself you might be a little crazy too.)

And we still aren’t sure what happened, even though, incredibly, the final moment’s of Timothy and Amie’s life were caught on tape. (Thankfully we don’t hear that, although we see Herzog listening to it, and for my money that’s all the more chilling.)

Documentaries have really become popular lately, and I’m glad for that. You will see no more singularly unique one than this. This is a movie to watch with friends and then discuss. There is virtually no way it won’t get you talking.

And that’s what a documentary should do.

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