Opinion

The Anthony Bourdain documentary gets his #MeToo devotion all wrong

It was part of what made him so beloved

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, is, in its director's off-camera words, an attempt to understand why its subject "was the way he was." But what was that way, exactly? Because if one answer is settled on over the course of the already controversial film, out Friday, it's that Anthony Bourdain was radiantly and exasperatingly human

Of course, Bourdain was more than just anybody, which is why a documentary has been made about him, why fans keep returning to the incomprehensible fact of his 2018 suicide, and probably why you're reading this article. But even if Roadrunner refrains from hagiography, never pulling back from the knotty puzzle of Bourdain, it also fails to fully grasp why the chef and storyteller meant so much to so many people. Yes, it was his magnetic humanity, which so often seemed a little closer to the surface than it is in the rest of us: a little rawer, a little more vulnerable, a little more visible. But nothing illustrated that quality better than Bourdain's uncompromising devotion to the cause of #MeToo, which the film, to its grave and mystifying error, frames as one of his tragic flaws.

While Roadrunner doesn't explicitly set out to explain why Bourdain took his own life, the question of his happiness haunts the entire film. He got too famous to live a normal life, he was an addict, he was a hopeless romantic, he was dark as f--k — all get raised as possible explanations for why Bourdain "was the way he was." But Morgan Neville, the film's Academy Award-winning director, seems to have an overriding theory of his own: that Bourdain was an obsessive, bouncing from one single-minded focus to the next: drugs, cooking, travel, jiu-jitsu — and eventually, a woman. 

The Italian actress and director Asia Argento was Bourdain's last romantic partner, and the friends and employees interviewed in Roadrunner describe his attraction to her as being immature, teenage-like, foolishly head-over-heels (Neville did not interview Argento for the film, a decision he's dubiously defended). For evidence of Bourdain's supposedly blinkered obsession with Argento, Roadrunner cites his dedication to the #MeToo movement. Argento, notably, was among the first and most vocal accusers of Harvey Weinstein, telling Ronan Farrow in his explosive 2017 New Yorker article that she'd been sexually assaulted by the producer. Bourdain likewise credited Argento as the catalyst for his activism: "I ain't 'woke,'" he tweeted in December 2017. "I was lucky enough to meet one, truly extraordinary woman." 

But for all the depiction by the media and Bourdain himself of his involvement in the #MeToo movement being an extension of his love for Argento, his support of victims was entirely in keeping with the Bourdain that his fans knew and loved — the tremendous listener, disarming in his open-mindedness and intensity of emotion.

Still, Roadrunner proposes this fervor was somehow a sign of his too-far-gone romantic intoxication; friends in the film testify that it wasn't like Bourdain to throw himself into a cause, and his ex-wife, Ottavia Busia, claims that Bourdain's involvement in #MeToo led him to cast off friends who had made comments in the past that he perceived as insensitive. It's baffling to try to find fault in Bourdain's advocacy for #MeToo, when he became one of the highest-profile role models for the kind of unmitigated belief and allyship that victims were seeking. More men should have done like Bourdain and reflected on their friendships and their internalized toxic masculinity. His public self-examination remains one of his greatest legacies. 

By all evidence, his focus on #MeToo wasn't just the result of caring about a woman who'd been raped either — although that should have been sufficient explanation enough — but also his decades of working within and adjacent to the restaurant industry. When Bourdain described himself as "merciless" on the issue of #MeToo, he wasn't uninformed about what went on in kitchens. "It's Batali. And it's bad," Bourdain tweeted in 2018, ahead of Eater publishing allegations that his fellow celebrity chef was a serial sexual predator.

In a subsequent Medium post, he emphasized that "right now, nothing else matters but women's stories of what it's like in the industry I have loved and celebrated for nearly 30 years  —  and our willingness, as human beings, citizens, men, and women alike, to hear them out, fully, and in a way that other women can feel secure enough, and have faith enough that they, too, can tell their stories." Such admirable comments didn't make it into the movie.

Rather than dismiss Bourdain's involvement in #MeToo as being the result of an unhealthy infatuation, Roadrunner would have done well to see it as exactly what made Bourdain, Bourdain. Caring about victims of sexual misconduct and assault wasn't out-of-character or a red flag; it was an extension of the deep empathy and compassion he had for others. That Bourdain listened to and connected with the experiences of people who were dramatically different from himself is precisely why he is so missed today — not just as a gifted television host and writer, but as a person. 

Bourdain was hardly flawless, and Roadrunner does an otherwise fantastic job capturing his essence as a complicated and troubled person in all the expected shades of gray. But to cast #MeToo, and by extension Bourdain's adoration of Argento, as among his character flaws is an unpardonable error. We didn't love him despite his empathy for others, but because of it.

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