It’s been three years since Anthony Bourdain surprisingly took his own life in a French hotel room, seemingly at the height of his career. How can someone who is undeniably successful, world-renowned, and beloved by so many find themselves in a pit of despair so deep that the only way out was suicide? One would hope that Morgan Neville’s documentary attempts to answer that question but, as the title clearly states, it’s a film about the man and not an investigation into his suicide.
I have no doubt that Neville was well-intended in his efforts to bridge the gap between the character we knew publicly and the very human man who was in a lot of emotional pain for a long time. Unfortunately, the interviewees didn’t have much light to shed on the subject as they were mostly friends Bourdain gained through his celebrity status. Nobody seemed to really know how badly he was hurting inside. Even the crew for his show, who was with him for extended periods of time, didn’t know the extent of his pain. I’m not saying this to place blame on their shoulders, it’s just an example of how intensely private Bourdain was and this documentary wasn’t able to crack that. Only one friend was able to point to an email where Tony asked “are you happy?” Sadly, beyond that, the film doesn’t uncover any larger truth.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable movie. The music is great, the editing is great and, for someone like me who mostly only knew of Bourdain in direct connection with his celebrity status, there was a lot to learn about his career. It’s interesting and entertaining to pull back the curtain on his professional life and rise to prominence. Maybe that’s the intended audience, but if you were a fan then I’m guessing a lot of this just revisits what you already knew. It’s in that space where the documentary perhaps comes up short. In attempting to show us who Bourdain was as a person, we’re given more of a behind-the-scenes retrospective of his career.
Then there’s this whole controversy about the voiceovers that got blown way out of proportion, but what else is new these days. If you didn’t already hear, the filmmakers decided to use an A.I. program to replicate Bourdain’s voice using existing audio samples. There are only a couple of instances where Bourdain’s synthesized voice is used to verbalize some emails he had written and the decision was signed off on by his estate. This wasn’t an egregiously unethical misuse of technology for the benefit of the film, as some might have you believe.
His life doesn’t go completely unexamined either. The film takes us through the end of Bourdain’s first marriage when his newfound fame altered the trajectory of his life. His second wife Ottavia recounts the onset of their relationship, giving birth to their child, and ultimately deeply regretting her inability to be there for him in the way he needed. Eventually, that relationship ended as well when he moved on to Italian actress Asia Argento. That relationship, and the impact it had on Bourdain’s life, are examined but I think Neville chose not to interview her for the film. She didn’t refuse, and not talking to the one person who was closest to the subject of your documentary at the time of their death is highly questionable.
In the end, that decision left us no closer to understanding Bourdain’s suicide than we were before the film and ultimately cycled through losing him all over again. However, the film isn’t about his death. It’s about his unique and incredible life. It also serves as a sobering reminder that even people with wealth, success and fame are still battling some of the same issues as everyone else.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Recommendation: Check it out. Bourdain’s fans will get to relive his rise to stardom and subsequent journeys as a world traveler. Those who didn’t follow him get a very entertaining and engaging crash course into his personal and professional history. However, the biggest question doesn’t have the answer you may be looking for.
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