If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
A “fun” little game if you’re experiencing suicidal ideation is to respond honestly when someone asks how you’re doing. The dissociative contrast between internal pain and the external performance of being a happy, functional adult is exhausting—not least because you can be contentedly paddling along, enjoying the warmth of the sun on your face, when a hand appears and grabs you by your ankle, jerking you down into the cold and the dark. Some hide this inner conflict better than others, and many were shocked when Anthony Bourdain, by all accounts the luckiest man alive, died by suicide on June 8, 2018. But as we discover in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, for the late celebrity chef, author, and globetrotting TV host, the effort required to maintain a safe distance between the private Tony and the public Tony was Herculean.
Bourdain was famous, on top of everything else, and didn’t just have to put on a bad-boy gourmand act for the cameras; he had to perform being other peoples’ idea of Anthony Bourdain on the street and in restaurants and every-fucking-where he went for decades. Eventually, he got famous enough that he was insulated from the rest of the world by assistants and roped-off VIP areas and all the other trappings of celebrity. That’s when things started spinning out of control. Bourdain was cursed with the gifts of being effortlessly eloquent and charismatic, worldly and witty and, yes, a little cynical, but never elitist or inaccessible. His curiosity and passion were authentic, and people responded to that. Which must have been great—at least for a little while.
To be clear, Roadrunner is very far from an advertisement for suicide. That would be horribly irresponsible, and also inconsistent with the style of its director, Oscar winner Morgan Neville. As he proved with his last feature-length biographical documentary, the Mr. Rogers film Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Neville excels at tearjerkers. And yes, the end of this movie is quite moving, as Bourdain’s friends, colleagues, and family members attempt to articulate the bewildering void Bourdain left behind. (Perhaps saddest of all, Éric Ripert, Bourdain’s friend and fellow chef who discovered his body while they were filming on location in France, simply says, “I don’t talk about that day.”) But the majority of the film doesn’t wallow in sentimentality. How could it, when Bourdain is narrating his own life?
Between his CNN shows No Reservations, Parts Unknown, and The Layover—all of which Bourdain wrote and narrated himself—a massive archive of video and audio recordings are available for someone like Neville to re-create Bourdain’s voice from beyond the grave. The majority of Roadrunner has the lively, whirlwind quality of the host’s travel series. We begin with the heady days shortly before Kitchen Confidential became a bestseller and proceed chronologically through two decades of televised travel, which gains increasing weight as the crew bears witness to historical events like the outbreak of the 2006 Lebanon War. Neville also indulges in one of his subject’s pet techniques by lifting clips from Bourdain’s favorite films and incorporating them into the narrative; scenes from Apocalypse Now accompany footage from a disorienting trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.
Neville’s deference to his late subject’s voice also extends to the darker, more troubling aspects of Bourdain’s personality. As if to announce that Roadrunner is not going to shy away from what we all know is coming, the director opens his film with audio of Bourdain caustically discussing how, when he dies, he’d like to be stuffed into a wood chipper and sprayed all over the bourgeois clientele of flagship London department store Harrod’s. In interview clips and behind-the-scenes footage, Bourdain’s insecurities, morbid fixations, and restless spirit dog him and those close to him. But Neville reserves judgement.
That is, until we get to the last year of Bourdain’s life, when he was caught up in a whirlwind romance with actress and director Asia Argento that led him to become an outspoken advocate for #MeToo. The longtime agents, producers, and crew members interviewed in the film clearly do not like Argento, and Neville puts a much sunnier spin on Bourdain’s domestic life with his second wife, Ottavia Busia, than on his unconventional relationship with the adventurous actor. He isn’t so reckless as to blame her outright for his death, but there’s a palpable change in tone when she enters the narrative. And while Argento is indeed a complicated person, the fact that she does not appear in the film to defend herself—nor do any of the other interviewees defend her—results in a biased indulgence in the sexist trope of the femme fatale, especially considering the note of raw, unresolved pain on which this film ends.
There has been a lot of myth-making about Bourdain in the three years since his death, and the implication that he died amid the rubble of a tortured affair with a cruel woman isn’t the only tale Neville is spinning. It’s as if Bourdain didn’t exist before he became famous. Discussion of his childhood is limited to a brief segment that gives the mistaken impression that he grew up in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when he was in fact from New Jersey. Brief references are made to his fondness for Iggy Pop, but we’re left to infer how downtown NYC shaped his worldview. And while one interview subject says, “People forget, Tony was a junkie,” that’s all the movie does to refresh us on that period in his life.
This may be due to a lack of source material. Why, after all, would there be footage of Bourdain from when he was a mere line cook, especially back in the ’80s and ’90s, before every moment of everyone’s life was constantly being documented? But it does feel unbalanced for a film that purports to lift the curtain on a beloved public figure to treat that figure as if he emerged fully formed in the late ’90s like a pithy Athena from the head of Zeus. Many of the people who watch Roadrunner will do so out of their affection for Bourdain, a pop saint of wanderers and troubled souls everywhere. And in terms of celebrating his life by letting us soak in his impassioned, inspiring presence one more time, the film is successful. But viewers should take one more note from the man himself and not fall for easy scapegoats and trite narratives, whether they concern countries or a person who devoted his life to exploring them.