Director Morgan Neville’s newest documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” presents a fascinating, frustrating and ultimately sobering portrait of beloved chef, author and TV show host Anthony Bourdain.
The documentary follows Bourdain and all his obsession and idealism throughout his TV career. The end is painful, not only for the obvious reasons, but also because it suggests that Bourdain’s suffocating fame and precarious relationship with his girlfriend provoked his death in 2018.
“Roadrunner” first captures Bourdain at the age of 42, when the rising author decides to take a swing at hosting a culinary TV show that follows the critic’s search for flavor, even in foods as adventurous as a still-beating cobra heart. Throughout the documentary, viewers watch as he develops from a withdrawn writer to an outspoken TV personality.
Bourdain’s rapid mastery of television as a medium is impressive, but it also raises the question — what could have spurred such a relentless career? It doesn’t take long for viewers to identify Bourdain’s addictive personality as the culprit. As David Choe, an artist and one of Bourdain’s closest friends recounts, the critic lived much of his life with addiction.
“People forget that Tony was a junkie,” Choe says, referring to Bourdain’s heroin addiction during the 1980s. “It jumped. The addiction jumped.” As Choe and others reflect, Bourdain devoured himself in hobbies, family, relationships and — most of all — work. (Though sadness seeps into these interviews, they nonetheless hold viewers captivated. In particular, Choe’s outright honesty and empathy are one of the few genuine joys of a tragic documentary.)
According to “Tony’s” friends, coworkers and second wife, he used his addictive personality as a tool to maintain his incurable romanticism and idealism. As Bourdain’s longtime producer Lydia Tenaglia explains, he would learn about individuals and countries through books and movies, then strain his eyes to see if “reality matched his imagination.” Of course, it never did.
This romanticism forced Bourdain’s energy to pour from him into his work like water from a faucet. There wasn’t enough left over to sustain his first marriage; and, when it began to crumble, it also drove Bourdain to decimate it. As Bourdain himself recounts, “I wrote a crime novel around that time where the central character’s yearning for a white picket fence existence reflected my own more truthfully than any non-fiction book I’d ever written. Shortly after that I cruelly burned down my previous life in its entirety.”
Bourdain’s work not only sucked away 250 days of the year, but also highlighted his weaknesses in stark yellow. His coworkers clearly love him, but they recount his scorched-earth honesty and indirect cruelty with a clarity his friends and family understandably lack. As The Wall Street Journal puts it, “While the most affecting interviews in the film are with his friends and his second wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, the most revealing are with the producers, directors and crew who worked with him across all those years and miles and watched him grow and change.”
Coworkers describe Bourdain as “maniacal,” “perfectionistic” and “a control freak.” His lack of communication often stressed Tenaglia out, enough so that she developed a cold sore. Still, Bourdain worked for a good cause, creating the rare TV program that lacked gimmicks or easy answers.
It’s easier to view Bourdain with softer eyes after listening to interviews with his friends and family. When they describe the man they knew, Bourdain’s weaknesses scrape less, like sharp rocks smoothed by running water. In this light, Bourdain was a kind of tragic hero, a man who tried desperately to muster up the strength to love others without shifting away to his latest obsession.
He failed at this rather often, however. And with each new failure, Bourdain’s loneliness and lack of self-worth intensified. Alison Mosshart, one of the critic’s friends, recounts that Bourdain, in the aftermath of his first divorce, found himself “wondering whether or not he was lovable.”
Later in life, Bourdain tried to address this problem by going to therapy. However, he lacked the hope that he could open his wounds and trust that something beyond himself could heal them. In one of the most mournful scenes of Neville’s documentary, the camera captures Bourdain’s 6’4″ frame from above, stretched out over a lounge chair in the middle of his therapist’s office.
The young woman gently poses a pointed question: “Do you really want to change anything? Do you want to change the way you feel?” she asks, her voice soft.
Bourdain’s face looks as if he is organizing the layers of his thoughts, drawing the truth upward. “I suspect it’s too late,” he finally replies.
The end of “Roadrunner” follows Bourdain in his early 60s, when his depression deepened and his mania spiked. Neville presents a new culprit at this point in the tale: Asia Argento, an Italian actress who Bourdain loved with childlike faith. According to Neville, Argento’s affair, along with Bourdain’s still-rising fame and his lifelong obsession and idealism, finally drove the critic to suicide. Through the clips Neville selects, viewers discern that Bourdain’s obsession with Argento accelerated his own speeding car — other drivers beware.
One example that chilled many of Bourdain’s coworkers was the time Argento filled in as a guest director on “Parts Unknown.” Here, Bourdain threw out his studied approach of listening and experiencing for cinematic aesthetics. He cuts off his tortured guest to move a table for a better angle, and even spontaneously fires a respected coworker and longtime friend.
A few scenes later, tabloid photos of Argento and another man dash Bourdain and viewers’ eyes. We can practically feel the angry bile as it rises in his throat. According to Bourdain’s brother Christopher Bourdain, Bourdain’s suicide was an act of blind revenge and anger: “If there was someone else in the room, it would have been a murder, not a suicide,” he says.
What audiences should carefully consider before attributing Bourdain’s death to Argento’s affair, however, is Neville’s unfair directorial decisions. Most glaringly, Neville declined to interview Argento, a choice he apparently made for multiple reasons.
According to interviews with various sources, one reason is the incredibly complex nature of Bourdain and Argento’s relationship, which, according to Neville, is “narrative quicksand.” Another reason Neville provides is that, because Argento has already spoken out about her relationship with Bourdain, her voice wouldn’t clarify the chaos of the story: “I kind of know what she was going to say,” Neville states.
His words are understandable, but damning. Neville failed to do his fundamental duty as a journalist by asking the subjects of his documentary the questions he attempts to answer himself.
Some other obvious mistakes limit the power of Bourdain’s film. Neville replicates Bourdain’s voice with AI technology, and he completely skips over his subject’s childhood and remarkable rise early in life.
Nonetheless, “Roadrunner” performs the magic trick of pitching viewers into a world where all artifice has been shed, revealing raw sensory experience. “Roadrunner” does precisely what Bourdain’s travel did according to one coworker — draw the audience into Bourdain’s psyche and precariously close to “the edge of chaos.”
The film is believable because it is complex, even contradictory at times. NPR puts it well: “It honors its subject, presenting him as flawed when he was flawed, exhausted when he was exhausted, cruel when he was cruel, and like many of us, he was those things sometimes. It’s just that he lived his life on television.”
The world needs idealism. Bourdain’s ethos exposed millions of Americans to the reality of other countries, even when those nations were in the aftermath or even the grip of war. As Chang incisively observes, Bourdain’s shows were “almost never about food,” but rather about “Tony learning to be a better person.” After his death, droves of people commemorated Bourdain with handwritten notes, which they tacked to the outside of the restaurant where he began his career.
Bourdain — and “Roadrunner” — stick with those who witness them. Like its subject, the documentary is nuanced, fascinating and, despite its obvious errors, fundamentally real.