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'Roadrunner' — Why critics are concerned about the Anthony Bourdain documentary

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
(Image credit: Focus Features)

Over the past weekend, the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain premiered and grossed an impressive $1.9 million domestically. This solid gross for a limited release and a documentary to boot is a reminder of just how beloved and highly mourned the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain is. Once christened the bad boy of American cuisine, he exploded into the mainstream thanks to his bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential. He eventually became one of the most popular food writers of his era and hosted a succession of food travel shows that helped to redefine how we talk about food. Bourdain was a sharp tongued but candid and deeply empathetic writer who tackled the intersections of food, culture, politics, and humanity with utmost precision. When he died by suicide in 2018, former President Barack Obama declared that Bourdain "taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown." All of this is to say that Bourdain is adored, that his death still feels raw to many, and that the idea of a documentary on his life and passing felt too soon to many.

Roadrunner premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to strong reviews, with many feeling that it was an appropriately honest look at a complicated and abrasive man's life and work. Upon the film's wide release, however, director Morgan Neville gave a few interviews that led many critics to question his filmmaking decisions and the ways they toyed with Bourdain's own story.

Neville admitted that he contacted a software company to create an artificial intelligence model of Bourdain's voice so that he could be heard apparently reading words that he wrote but was never recorded saying out loud. This included an email Bourdain sent to a friend. Neville told The New Yorker that "you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know. We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later." When critics spoke out about the ethically sticky nature of this choice, Neville then issued a statement saying that he had received the blessing of Bourdain's estate and literary agent, a claim that Bourdain's ex-wife and executor of his estate denied on Twitter.

Others expressed discomfort with how Roadrunner implicitly blames Bourdain’s partner at the time of his death, actress-director Asia Argento, for his suicide. Argento is not featured in the documentary, with Neville admitting he didn't even ask her to be in it. As any mental health or suicide prevention charity will tell you, it is pertinent that depictions and reporting of suicide avoid melodramatic framing and don't point fingers at outside parties as the ones to blame. This is particularly important when it comes to high-profile deaths by suicide. As the British charity the Samaritans notes in their media guidelines, "it is particularly important to avoid the use of emotive or dramatic language and images, including public tributes and memorials, which may romanticize or glamourize suicidal behavior." Matt Goldberg of Collider explained in his mixed review of Roadrunner how Neville makes the horrendous mistake of trying to "answer" Bourdain’s suicide when there’s no answer to be found, nor would finding an answer make any difference."

This one-two punch of what can most charitably be described as a journalistic misstep by Morgan Neville has left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. His glib line about a documentary-ethics panel made things seem that much worse. The fact that he even acknowledged the tricky territory he waded into with his AI decision in this manner highlighted the inherently questionable nature of his approach. It's not that Neville is doing anything especially radical here. In truth, documentaries often use recreations or add narrative to verbalize a subject's written words. They narrativize that which is intrinsically oppositional to such neatness. A lot of this has inspired debates of ethical appropriateness, all of which is as old as the documentary medium itself. Consider a film like Nanook of the North, a pioneering silent documentary from 1922 that depicted the like of an Inuk man in the Canadian Arctic. It was later revealed that the film's director had staged several sequences. He even encouraged his subject (who wasn't named Nanook at all but Allakariallak) to use traditional tools for hunting rather than the gun he prefered, which made the Inuk people seem more primitive than they were. Stuff like this matters because these films often imprint upon viewers a version of truth that isn't that in the slightest. They can reinforce outdated ideals in the name of a better story.

The issue of AI has also brought a spotlight onto a growing area of interest for celebrities. If the technology is now sophisticated enough to accurately recreate a person's voice or appearance, who gets control over that individual? In November 2019, it was announced that James Dean had been cast in a new movie. Dean has been dead since 1955 but his performance would be achieved AI. We can be reasonably confident that Dean did not consent to this appropriation of his image and legacy, but this is now something that actors today will have to deal with. If you’re, say, Robert Downey Jr., do you now have to add a paragraph to your will dictating whether or not you approve of an AI duplicate of yourself for posthumous movie appearances? At what point is a beloved public figure allowed to rest in peace? Morgan Neville’s decision to use AI to “resurrect” Bourdain for convenience, then him not disclosing this detail until after the film was released, only adds a further strain of unease to Roadrunner.

Transparency is key with documentary filmmaking. The medium can be used to explore all manner of ideas and issues, and Roadrunner set itself the task of trying to understand a difficult man who defied the rules. There will always be inherent biases and agendas behind documentaries, and it is naïve of us to assume that a 100% objective approach could ever exist. Still, ethics matter, especially when you’re dealing with the life of someone so beloved who deserves much better than to be a puppet for a filmmaker who wanted to take the easy route. Bourdain’s legacy will, thankfully, endure long after Roadrunner outstays its welcome.