“I was unqualified for the job,” Anthony Bourdain says in the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021), directed by Morgan Neville. His creative team agree, in archival footage and contemporary interviews. Bourdain had never really traveled anywhere when he had success with his first book, Kitchen Confidential, and he was almost morbidly shy, “which you do not want on camera,” one producer says with wry regret. His first TV series, A Cook’s Tour (2002-03), which was just Bourdain and the married couple who had scouted him traveling around, seemed doomed at the start.
But Bourdain learned quickly, and the series, meant to be an adjunct to his second book, took off, so “the tail walked the dog,” Bourdain says.
“This was like a rebirth for Tony,” a producer says. “It was like he died and was reborn. I mean, this was a new person with a new life.” Watching him achieve not just fame and fortune, but also “the best job in the world,” as he acknowledges, I think of my personal distinction between “blessed” and “blessèd.” He was lucky and got to do what many thought was a dream job, but ultimately—seemingly paradoxically, of course—it brought him no peace.
Roadrunner is good enough that a viewer is led to remember the cartoon soundtrack: “Road Runner runs down the road all day, / Even the coyote can’t make him change his ways. / Road Runner, the coyote’s after you, / Road Runner, if he catches you you’re through.”
A scene that seems to have been unused in the series shows Bourdain in Thailand, perhaps, standing on a deck, watching young women who may be prostitutes in a neon-lighted club. He looks into the camera and tells his soon-to-be ex-wife, a casualty of his success, to have her divorce lawyers “depose anyone on the crew” about what he is up to.
“This too is part of life’s glorious mosaic,” he says, holding his cig and again considering the women.
At the start of the documentary he says, “You’re probably going to find out about it anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth-telling: There’s no happy ending.”
When I think of Bourdain’s shows now, I think of the episodes in which he pointed out the problems of them fitting into the food/travel genre, as TV and streaming had imagined it so far. (Remember that guy who made a series out of eating gluttonously? Or the other one who went looking to make a big deal about eating things his middle-class white viewers would think were disgusting?) Bourdain’s life, as a person and TV host, changed yet again when he and his crew were exposed to armed conflict in Lebanon, to life in the Congo, to a Laotian family whose father had been mutilated by landmines.
In the Beirut episode he lies next to a pool, getting a tan, as bombs fall, and he points out that it is metaphor, “and not a flattering one” to himself. He laughs then gets serious. His producer adds, “He just stopped doing the rosy sum-up of what we just saw…he just stopped.” As refugees (and he and his crew) board a military ship for evacuation, he says that he had thought, as a foodie-traveler, that the dinner table “was the great leveler. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe…the good and the bad are all crushed under the same terrible wheel. I really hope I’m wrong about that.”
It was in these moments he became more significant, and again the doc is good enough to combine that idea with shots of him gazing off the fantail of the ship underway in the sea, trailing a violent wake, with echoes of Hart Crane. Later, as Bourdain sinks into isolation and depression he is explicit about his ideation and tells chef friend Éric Ripert that the mast of the sailboat they are on would support his body weight if he hung himself from it.
Critical reviews of the documentary argue over whether a narrative that implies cause-and-effect of Bourdain’s suicide—hanging himself in his hotel room as the result of addiction, manic depression, the public cheating of his latest love—are adequate or even ethical. The best part of the documentary, as well as the select best of his many shows, embodies the complexity of trying to hold all the beauty and pain as he moved down the road.
“That ambiguity, that’s what he embraced,” a friend says in the doc. “Fuckin’ open-endedness—that’s where the answers are.”
“It’s the least I can do—to see the world with open eyes,” Bourdain says in Laos.
“It is written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice,” he says elsewhere. “I think I now understand what that means.”
“[His show] was almost never about food,” chef and friend David Chang, himself a food-show host, says. “I think it was about Tony learning to be a better person.”
But the documentary shows that as Bourdain was unable to contain emotionally all that his open eyes saw, he failed to be a better person as well, estranging himself from his daughter and turning, as addicts will, against those who loved him most. He told Chang that Chang would never be a good father, and on-camera Chang breaks down.
“Of course he was projecting,” Chang says. “But it fucking hurt.”
Instead, the doc suggests, Bourdain’s addictive personality turned to another in a long line of women as a way to numb his pain. “We know his love for her was completely pure and safe and helpful and supportive,” a friend says. “Which is what he was essentially looking for from her. And I think that Tony concluded that the way to earn her trust was just to go in with his whole heart.” That trust was betrayed on both sides, it seems.
“He’s a fucking runner,” a friend says. “I mean, he ran for a long time. But you’re not gonna outsmart pain.” The intellect tries to integrate beauty, interest, passion, boredom, love, betrayal, and pain. Blessèd are the ones who try.
A friend and colleague says in the doc, “We’re trying so hard to understand [his death], because we think if we can understand it then we’ll be okay with it. And the fact of the matter is: no.”
“I don’t think we get to know. Don’t get to know. That’s tough.”
Everyone interviewed in the documentary breaks down eventually with grief, but director Neville has the great good sense to acknowledge the fatuousness of an ending that shows Bourdain walking down a beach with his back to us. The film kicks into a celebration of his friends and colleagues laughing with their families, performing music, and defacing a pious mural of Bourdain’s face. They are whole-self, radically rebellious acts of being here, of trying, while there is time.