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The Double-Edged Ethics of the Anthony Bourdain Documentary ‘Roadrunner’

How do you navigate the thin line between honesty and exploitation in telling the stories of those who aren’t in a position to tell them themselves?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The first words we hear in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain are, unsurprisingly, Bourdain’s. Though deceased, the writer, chef, and TV host left behind hundreds of hours of voice-overs, which director Morgan Neville weaves in throughout; more than most documentary subjects, Bourdain comes with his own prewritten narrative. But Neville’s choice of epigraph still stands out as the director’s own distinct authorial choice: “It is considered useful, enlightening, and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.”

Roadrunner thinks about death quite a bit—certainly for more than a few minutes. The film explores Bourdain’s life, mostly after the memoir Kitchen Confidential gave him a fresh start at the age of 43. (Bourdain’s brother, Chris, likens his sudden fame to a rebirth in middle age.) But the film’s most noteworthy and, ultimately, controversial elements have to do with Bourdain’s death by suicide in 2018. In the days leading up to Roadrunner’s Friday release, the backlash to certain creative decisions threatened to overshadow the production itself. In promotional interviews, Neville disclosed that he’d hired a software company to train an AI model to read three passages of Bourdain’s writing in a convincing dupe of his voice; Neville also revealed that he’d declined to reach out to Asia Argento, the actress and director who was Bourdain’s last romantic partner and figures prominently in Roadrunner’s wrenching final act. Both decisions are imperfect answers to an impossible question, one Bourdain himself struggled with in his work: How do you navigate the thin line between honesty and exploitation in telling the stories of those who aren’t in a position to tell them themselves?

Toward the end of Roadrunner, Neville includes a disclaimer of sorts. “I don’t want to, like, blame the girlfriend, or blame the lover, or blame the husband,” says Michael Steed, a producer on Bourdain’s shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown. “Tony killed himself. Tony did it.” (Steed is just one of the many close associates Neville interviews, a group that spans Bourdain’s friends, family, and colleagues. Roadrunner’s guest roster is so comprehensive that Argento’s absence is especially obvious.) The interlude is both uncomfortable and necessary; without it, Roadrunner would walk right up to the line of doing exactly what Steed says he wants to avoid—linking Argento to Bourdain’s downward spiral. But by not giving Argento herself a chance to appear or even respond to the film’s contents before its release, Roadrunner essentially drifts across the line anyway.

There are reasons Neville may not have wanted to give Argento the same platform he extends to, say, Bourdain’s ex-wife Ottavia Busia. Argento was one of numerous women who said they were raped by Harvey Weinstein. Months after Bourdain’s death, The New York Times reported that Jimmy Bennett, an actor and musician, said that Argento sexually assaulted him in 2013, when he was 17. According to the Times, “Mr. Bourdain helped Ms. Argento navigate the matter.” Roadrunner makes no mention of the allegations. “I feel like the complication and weight of her part of the story could capsize the film in a heartbeat,” Neville told GQ. “I just didn’t want to get into that game of he said, she said, they said,” he added in an interview with Thrillist.

But the fact remains that Argento is a part of Bourdain’s story, and therefore Roadrunner’s; in avoiding the “game,” Roadrunner simply settles on “they said.” She’s still a presence, even if she wasn’t given the opportunity to be an active one—an opportunity that’s as much about fairness to Argento as it is Neville’s credibility as a documentarian. (Argento may well have declined the invitation, had one actually been made; at least Neville could then have said he extended it.) Neville is not the steward of Bourdain’s legacy, which also includes projects like the posthumous collection World Travel, coauthored by longtime collaborator Laurie Woolever, as well as Woolever’s upcoming Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography. Still, he is a steward, a responsibility underscored by the still-raging debate over Roadrunner’s use of AI.

The manufactured voice-over is easy to miss in the movie itself; the device became an issue only when The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner picked up on a scene in which Bourdain appears to read aloud a despondent email he sent to the artist David Choe. To offended acolytes, the inconspicuousness is exactly what rankles: It feeds the perception that there’s some kind of deception at work. Mostly, though, the incident drives home the reality that Bourdain’s body of work, which he oversaw with a fervid focus Roadrunner takes care to note, is no longer under his control. There’s a dissonance between the idea of Bourdain’s voice as an irreplaceable treasure and Bourdain’s voice as a predictable pattern that can be simulated by a computer. Neville compounded the issue by claiming to GQ that key figures such as Busia were “cool with” the technique. Busia has since rebutted the claim, which Neville subsequently walked back.

Compared to the Argento issue, Neville’s use of AI is easier to separate from one’s opinion of Roadrunner. The handful of lines aren’t integral to the arc of the film. But Roadrunner’s portrayal of Argento, or lack thereof, seems to contradict what makes the movie at once so remarkable and so fraught—its willingness to look difficult topics like grief and loss in the eye. “That ambiguity, that’s what he embraced. The open-endedness is where the answers are,” says Chris Collins, who with Lydia Tenaglia formed the husband-wife production team that recruited Bourdain to television. Roadrunner dives headfirst into the most open-ended aspect of Bourdain’s life: its messy, unsolvable end.

One of the strongest choices Neville makes in discussing Bourdain’s death is letting the interviewees contradict each other. Some say Bourdain shouldn’t be remembered for the way he died; others that he was a tragic figure, chased down by his own pain. Some say his suicide was a “clear decision”; others that it was impulsive, irrational. Some say he left without warning; others say the signs were there. Taken together, these testimonials drive home how unknowable Bourdain’s reasons are and always will be. You could argue, as some critics have, that this unknowability makes discussing the death pointless, even unseemly. But there’s also honesty in admitting how much the end of Bourdain’s journey cast a pall over the extraordinary path he took to get there for fans and friends alike.

There’s an admirable candor in how Roadrunner centers Bourdain’s death: explicitly and from the start, in the opening scenes. “He committed suicide, the fuckin’ asshole,” scoffs John Lurie, the musician and painter who hosted Bourdain in his New York apartment for what would become the star’s last on-screen meal. The line serves as a preview of the hurt, pain, and confusion expressed by many of Neville’s interviewees. These are ugly, often unfiltered emotions, ones Neville allows to exist alongside more acceptable feelings like nostalgia. Their inclusion is what keeps Roadrunner from a mere homage, or worse yet, a clip show.

After all, a project like Roadrunner comes with the responsibility to prove it can explain Bourdain in a way Bourdain hasn’t already done himself; what does Roadrunner have to offer that a rewatch of No Reservations, available in full on Discovery+, or Parts Unknown, on HBO Max, does not, apart from saving the viewer some time? (Roadrunner is currently in theaters only, but will land on Max at a later, currently unspecified date.) Neville’s solution lies in looking into what Bourdain would not or could not put in his shows: behind-the-scenes clips and unused outtakes; home videos of Bourdain with his daughter; finally, inevitably, his death.

Argento’s portrayal is the closest Roadrunner gets to an explanation of the inexplicable—a choice that’s not just irresponsible, given her exclusion from the process, but also counter to the ambiguity the film otherwise tries to embrace. In its closing minutes, Roadrunner lays out a timeline: Days before a Parts Unknown shoot in Alsace, France, paparazzi photos showed Argento with another man; Bourdain’s final Instagram story was set to music from Violent City, an Italian revenge film that begins with a couple photographed from afar. It’s here where Roadrunner’s ambiguity collides with an indulgence in easy answers. After watching, I have to admit a part of me was gratified that Roadrunner makes Bourdain’s death seem slightly less out of nowhere than it initially felt. It’s just not a part of me I’m especially proud of. Roadrunner tries to capture Anthony Bourdain, but it does a better job of capturing what it means to admire someone, and how admiration doesn’t always do right by the admired.