Movies

The Anthony Bourdain Doc Is No Hagiography

Roadrunner is a brilliant, sometimes troubling documentary about a brilliant, sometimes troubling man.

Bourdain proffers a food item toward the camera.
Footage of Anthony Bourdain from Roadrunner. CNN/Focus Features

Within seconds of the opening of Roadrunner, a new documentary from the Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), the writer, chef, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain is already talking about death. Sitting at a table with an unseen companion, he says that he has no investment in what happens to his remains after he is gone, except insofar as it might provide “entertainment value” for his body to be, say, fed into a woodchipper and sprayed around the London department store Harrods at rush hour.

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Given that Bourdain died by suicide in 2018 during the filming of an episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown in Alsace, France, this mordant joke takes on extra-gruesome meaning—and as a montage later on in the movie shows, it was far from the only time he cracked wise on camera about his own death. In its mix of playful irreverence and punk-rock attitude, the put-me-in-a-woodchipper-at-Harrods line is pure Bourdain, an example of the way he could charm, seduce, shock, and amuse all at the same time.

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Roadrunner intercuts clips of interviews with its subject and those who were close to him with behind-the-scenes footage from his shows and snippets from the movies and music he loved. Bourdain was a lifelong cinephile, and the film’s stream-of-consciousness-style editing often folds shots from his favorite films into scenes from his travels and his personal life: a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for an episode of Parts Unknown becomes an excuse for Bourdain to reenact, and Neville to incorporate, scenes from Apocalypse Now. The result is not a dirgelike hagiography but a swift-moving and curiously sprightly movie that captures Bourdain’s vitality, his biting humor, his weapons-grade charisma, and his seemingly limitless hunger for new experiences. It was these qualities, as much as the cuisines he sampled and the people and places he encountered around the globe, that made his TV shows and his writing (which were really one and the same, since he painstakingly wrote and rewrote his own voice-over narration) so distinct from other food- and travel-centric shows on television.

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Neville chooses to start Bourdain’s story at the moment he entered the public eye with the publication of his bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential in 2000. The previous 43 years of his existence—his childhood in Leonia, New Jersey; his decision to drop out of Vassar College and get a degree at the Culinary Institute of America; his years spent working as a dishwasher in Provincetown, Massachusetts, while becoming addicted to and then quitting heroin; his ascent to executive chef at the Manhattan bistro Les Halles—go all but undiscussed. (In fact, Bourdain’s early life is summed up so hastily that both I and a viewing companion came out of the screening with the impression he had grown up in Provincetown.)

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This choice to abandon a traditional chronological timeline effectively focuses the documentary around Bourdain’s uneasy relationship to fame: One minute he is joshing warmly with fans who recognize him in the street; the next he is anxiously holed up in his hotel room. But it also leaves the viewer unmoored in time and space, unsure of how some of the events we see relate to one another. Instead, the thread Neville follows through Bourdain’s last 20 or so years of life is an affective one: where he traveled, whom he loved, how he felt about himself and his place in the world, and how his friends, family, and professional partners felt about him.

In Bourdain’s life, love, friendship, and creative partnership often overlapped. Many of the talking heads (and on more than one occasion, crying heads) who appear to tell stories about him were also his traveling and dining companions on one or another of the shows he hosted for the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and CNN. Quite a few are also star chefs: David Chang of Momofuku and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, the latter of whom was filming an episode of Parts Unknown with Bourdain at the time of his death, share their memories of an expansive, affectionate friend whose mood could inexplicably turn dark. The mixed martial artist Ottavia Busia, Bourdain’s second wife and the mother of his only child, testifies to her ex’s addictive personality: When he developed a new passion, whether it was for a woman or the martial art of Brazilian jiujitsu, he threw himself into it to the point of obsession. And a host of former colleagues—his longtime TV producers, directors, and crew; his literary agent; his publisher—tell stories that paint a complex portrait of a lovable but difficult man. Bourdain was a doting father when he was at home; grilling burgers in the yard for a family meal, he describes himself as “ridiculously, stupidly happy.” Yet he traveled for 250 days out of every year, saw his daughter less and less in the last year of his life, and in the end left her behind in the most painful way imaginable.

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Some of Roadrunner’s most powerful passages come as Bourdain, filming episodes of his show in poor or war-torn countries, begins to question what purpose a series about exploring global cuisine should serve in a world where so many have nothing to eat. An attempt to give out food after a shoot in earthquake-ravaged Haiti results in a tense shoving match that threatens to turn into a riot. An episode set in Beirut winds up stranding the crew in the midst of a war after an Israeli bomb attack. (Bourdain initially wanted to jettison the resulting footage; instead, he turned it into a reflection on violence and inequality that was nominated for an Emmy.)

Roadrunner is never less than fascinating to watch, but it is far from perfect. At times Neville’s love for finding visual rhymes in the footage he pieces together results in transitions that are too glib: a reference to Bourdain’s split from Busia “burning his life to the ground” precedes a cut to bombs dropping on Lebanon. A shot from Parts Unknown of Bourdain ankle-deep in bloody water after slaughtering a hog cuts to a pair of high heels on a red carpet at Cannes. And the woman standing in those heels—the Italian actress and director Asia Argento—becomes the subject of the film’s most troubling segment.

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In the last year and a half of his life, Bourdain fell in love with Argento after meeting her on an episode of the show shot in Rome. With typical intensity, he threw himself headfirst into their affair, even allowing her to take over the direction of a Parts Unknown episode in Hong Kong, to the consternation of his longtime crew. After Argento said that she had been sexually assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain became a vocal force in the #MeToo movement, using his talk show appearances to speak out about it and alienating friends whom he perceived as insufficiently loyal to the cause. (Argento herself would later be accused of sexual assault by an actor who was 17 at the time of their encounter, a story that Argento denies and Roadrunner leaves untold.) Only days before Bourdain ended his life in an Alsatian hotel room, a tabloid published paparazzi photos of Argento kissing and embracing a French reporter in Rome.

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The documentary never goes so far as to suggest that Argento was at fault for Bourdain’s death; in fact, Neville is careful to include a clip of one of Bourdain’s friends clarifying that “Tony killed himself.” But the section of the film showcasing their relationship nonetheless assumes a tone (including ominous music on the soundtrack) that veers uncomfortably close to villainization. The affair with Argento does seem to have been a part of the general darkness that overtook Bourdain’s life in its last few years; even as he was beginning to fall for her, one colleague recalls, he already foresaw that it would end badly. But when Neville, for example, includes the voice of an unseen friend on the soundtrack telling Bourdain that “she’s gonna take over your life, you know,” it’s hard not to hear the director’s editorializing as sexist blame-shifting in the tradition of “Yoko broke up the Beatles.”

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It’s a testament to the overall success of Neville’s portrait of Bourdain that in spite of a flaw that major, Roadrunner is more than worth watching. It ends on a note of painful irresolution, with Bourdain’s friends still processing their grief and anger at his abrupt departure from the world for reasons that, as the editor of Kitchen Confidential wisely points out, no one will ever know for sure. But the closing credits, set to a rousing punk-rock song played by one of Bourdain’s many musician friends, feature images not of the subject himself but of the people we’ve just seen talking about him on camera, all moving on with their lives. David Chang—whom the moody Bourdain once deeply hurt by telling him he would never be a good father—holds his baby, smiling. Busia sets out on a walk with her and Bourdain’s now-teenage daughter (shown only from behind). Another friend, an artist and fellow recovering addict who has just gleefully defaced one of the romanticized murals of Bourdain painted on walls around New York City, stands covered in paint, grinning from ear to ear. The tragic paradox of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide is that a man with such a huge appetite for life chose to end his own. It’s fitting that a tribute to him should end not with a backward gaze but with a glimpse into the future of the world he loved so much.

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