Roadrunner: Tampering with Anthony Bourdain’s Life

President Barack Obama with Anthony Bourdain at Bún cha Huong Lien Restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam – The White House via Wikimedia Commons

I will never forget the name “Anthony Bourdain.” Growing up, I watched Bourdain’s travel show, Parts Unknown, with my mother. Each Sunday, we would sit in the living room and learn about a new culture as Bourdain traveled and experienced new things, narrating along the way. When he took his life in 2018, my family mourned by watching reruns of his show, and I became a bigger Bourdain fan. I fell in love with Kitchen Confidential, the book that made him famous. It was about his life and work, and it was captivating. He wrote about cooking so eloquently that by the end of reading the book, I decided I wanted to become a chef.

It’s been over two years since then. CNN released a documentary called Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain in July 2021. Time had changed me, and as I watched the film, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be a chef anymore. But I was sure of one thing: I still loved Anthony Bourdain. 

I think I became fascinated with him because he wasn’t like any other TV host I had seen. He didn’t feel like a “travel guide.” He wasn’t trying to sell me anything. There was nothing sleazy about him. He was grumpy, curious, and funny. He had a unique mix of three things: honesty, self-awareness, and charisma. 

So there was no way that a Bourdain-a-phile like me wouldn’t at least enjoy Roadrunner. Just watching the behind-the-scenes clips from Anthony’s life was enough to keep me interested for two hours. And it turns out that this was the best part of the movie: just hearing from Anthony’s friends, watching old footage of him, listening to his favorite songs. 

Anthony Bourdain in 2014 – Peabody Awards via Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most significant part of the movie was how it touched on the topic of addiction. I came away from the documentary with a better understanding of the pain that underscored Bourdain’s life. He seemed to need external things to devote himself to. Drugs, people, and places. You can even see on his show that he is always searching for something—throwing himself full-heartedly into one situation after another. 

There’s one part of the movie that I can’t get out of my head. It’s footage of Anthony at some type of Addicts Anonymous meeting (he had been clean since the 80s) where he talks about what he felt when he first did heroin.

His friend Allison Mosshart says, “His whole entire personality was that of a searcher. I just know that he was definitely searching for something, and it was kind of agony for him.”

There’s one part of the movie that I can’t get out of my head. It’s footage of Anthony at some type of Addicts Anonymous meeting (he had been clean since the 80s) where he talks about what he felt when he first did heroin.

 “I’ll tell you something really shameful about myself. The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin,” Bourdain said. “You know, something was missing in me, some part of me wanted to be a dope fiend. My whole life was leading up to that point.” 

This nugget showcases what is so interesting to me about Anthony Bourdain: his ability to articulate his desire to find himself at the expense of order in his life. Many, many people have this desire. But Anthony was rare in how thoughtful and honest he was about it. 

Snippets like Bourdain’s confession at AA—previously neglected glimpses of the real Tony—are the best parts of the film. Coupled with thoughtful interviews, the majority of Roadrunner is a strong, even eye-opening film.

Yet towards the end, filmmaker Morgan Neville messes with the simplicity that had dominated the movie thus far. He turns from a biographer into a novelist and obscures the reality of Bourdain’s death by staging an artistic moment. It ends up feeling hollow, like Neville felt Anthony’s death needed something other than honesty to give it meaning. Above all, the fakeness of the ending reminds me how this documentary, or any for that matter, will always retain a distance from truth. Roadrunner is an outside narrative, prodding and poking at the traces of a man’s life. A successful documentary prods gently. The ending of Roadrunner, coupled with the movie’s morally reprehensible use of A.I., is a brash, gratuitous poke.