Warning: This post includes discussions of suicide. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I lost a loved one to suicide years ago. If you believe that influences this review, that's your call.
Anthony Bourdain was one of the greatest storytellers in the history of the United States. The chef-turned author-turned TV show host-turned beloved global icon entertained millions around the world with his passion for cooking, his behind-the-scenes restaurant stories, and eventually his desire to gain a better understanding of humanity, largely shaped by what people in other countries eat. He was a rebel, an inquisitive mind, and a charismatic figure who drew crowds wherever he went. He was also a shy man battling insecurities and addictions for his entire life.
It was a loss for the world when Anthony Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. However, the warning signs had been there for years in his works. He has a complicated legacy which is examined in the new documentary, Roadrunner. (The movie just came out in theaters and will eventually make its way to streaming services.) Academy Award winning director Morgan Neville has produced an unflinching look at Bourdain's life which is both a loving tribute to his career, as well as a heartbreaking study of the pain he left behind.
Roadrunner is filled with interviews from family, friends, and coworkers. Bourdain's first wife Nancy does not make an appearance, but his second wife Ottavia discusses life with him at-length. Anthony and Ottavia had a daughter named Ariane, (who is not interviewed but is seen in plenty of home movie footage.) It's easy to see the lasting impact he had on each and every one of them.
The documentary, which is 118 minutes long, is a treasure trove of Bourdain footage. We first see him in 1999 as a random chef with a new book called Kitchen Confidential. He looks unhealthy. He's stringy, and everything about him is a dirty grey, from his hair to his skin color. He has a lot of energy, but you can also feel the shyness and awkwardness pouring off of him. He seems excited by the book's success and the chance to experience this new fame, but he's also already clearly suspicious about the world he's entering. So many of his articles and other writings after this point reflected concerns about feeling like a fraud and fear that he would eventually be exposed and lose everything.
We watch his journey as he eventually makes his way into the world of television. You see Bourdain gradually get the hang of TV, and he looks better. He's heavier, his skin color is much healthier, and he seems generally more confident about his life. However even then, whatever demons he had around his self-esteem are still clearly there. They may be a shade more in-check, but they haven't vanished.
Those demons returned full force when Bourdain's second marriage ended. As the documentary discusses, the addictive personality that first got him into heroin years earlier was still driving him. He seemed to be constantly chasing the next rush and could only stay with it for so long before moving on to the next goal. After all of this success, there was still a hole in his existence that was seemingly never satisfied. Add to that, the fact that his global fame made it increasingly hard for him to go anywhere without being recognized, and whatever the trigger, he started a spiral from which he would eventually be unable to escape. You can see it in the footage from this part of his life. That energy, that excitement from before, is largely gone. It's been replaced by an overwhelming sadness, and perhaps in hindsight, desperation.
Roadrunner comes close to blaming Anthony Bourdain's suicide on his relationship with actress Asia Argento. This is misguided. When a person takes their own life, whatever the backstory, the responsibility for that decision lies squarely with that individual and no one else. Regardless of the couple's problems, that's not what caused him to take that final step.
It's hard to watch all of the interview subjects struggle so much when talking about Bourdain's death. Three years later, there's clearly still a lot of sadness, disbelief, and anger for all of them to process. It's easy to see why one might ask why he would leave his beloved daughter (and the rest of his friends and family) behind, or why he didn't write a note. It can be hard to understand that a person can only fight that level of existential pain for so long. The person in crisis may well understand the heartache they'll leave behind, but that by itself isn't a strong enough argument to stay alive if there's no relief in sight.
Roadrunner is a difficult movie to watch, but overall, it's a moving look at Anthony Bourdain, both as a private man and public figure. Hopefully it will also spur some conversations with people who may be suffering their own battles with depression in silence. Recommended.
If you or someone you know is in trouble, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
A much-missed figure. (pic via imdb.com)
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