This smart, provocative film centers on an "argument" between filmmaker Werner Herzog and his subject. Where Treadwell calls the bears his "friends," and names them ("Mr. Chocolate," "Sergeant Brown," "Wendy"), Herzog calls the animals wild beasts. Some interviewees see Treadwell as "crossing a line" he should have left alone. Others see him as a man who lost his way ("He meant well, but to me, he was acting like he dealing with people in bear costumes"). According to Herzog's narration, Treadwell "stylized himself as Prince Valiant, fighting the bad guys." These opponents were ambiguous and legion, including poachers, other campers, park authorities, even Treadwell's own demons. A onetime waiter, failed actor, and recovering alcoholic, he sought a cause, a community in which he could feel comfortable and sympathetically reflected.
In the bears, the film proposes, Treadwell found companionship and refuge, a way to escape or maybe remake himself. To achieve this end, he rejected his unhappy past, spent more and more time in the parks, "methodically" taping over scenes he saw as "mistakes," perfecting the image he wanted to present, whether to himself or some future audience is not clear. "It is a simpler world," Herzog remarks of Treadwell's seeming sanctuary, "but it is a harsh, brutal world. We can't live in that world because we're very different from them."