The 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, a one-time actor of some repute, died on June 5, 2004. Not surprisingly, the event dominated the news cycle for some days afterward. It also cut short a story that out of Granby, Colorado. The story of an event that transpired the day before, June 4.
Early the morning of the 4th, 52-year-old Marvin Heemeyer unleashed a modified Komatsu D355A bulldozer on Granby. His rampage captured international news as police were impotent to do anything to stop the armored vehicle from destroying every target it set its sights upon. Ultimately, the dozer became stuck in the process of demolishing a building, Heemeyer killed himself, and the event was quickly swallowed by other more important news.
No one else was killed throughout the event, which is one reason I suspect the event is still fascinating enough and prime for someone to aim a lens and tell the story behind it. What led a man to buy an armored bulldozer in order to destroy the property and livelihoods of people he felt had wronged him? Tread is this story. It’s a documentary that at times feels more made-for-cable true crime drama than a historically accurate retelling, but it doesn’t make it any less compelling, or frightening than it was the day it all happened.
Director: Paul Solet
Release Date: March 8, 2019 (SXSW)
Tread is in some ways a full-length feature as much as it is a documentary. Director Paul Solet went deep. Tread is a full retelling of not only the events of June 4, 2004, but of everything that lead up to it. It’s a full accounting of Heemeyer’s life from the time he set up shop in Granby through the conclusion of the rampage. All the principal parties involved in a series of public disputes between Heemeyer and various neighbors and business competitors are interviewed and offered a chance to present not only their recollection of the event and what led to it, but their interpretation of what transpired. Heemeyer, obviously unable to do so, is represented by narration provided by a series of cassette tape recordings he created prior to June 4, 2004. The film’s progression is a scary descent into what appears to be utter madness. What may have been legitimate gripes regarding town-imposed sanctions, fines, and taxes, driven by parties with their own interests at heart, are rendered inert as more and more evidence mounts to suggest that Heemeyer had come out on top financially (quite well) despite several self-sabotaging decisions throughout the intervening years. Yet, his rants get more and more pointed, and gain the zealousness of the seriously deluded.
What’s perhaps best about Tread and what makes it less controversial than other true crime documentaries, like Making a Murderer, is the fact that it doesn’t take a stand. It offers, on one side, the testimony of all those accused of antagonizing and conspiring against Heemeyer, and on the other, quite a bit of Heemeyer’s own recorded testimony. You’re presented with all of the dissenting opinions and offered the opportunity to draw your own conclusions. The interview process is top notch with stellar lighting and sharp camera-work. It’s almost overproduced, with hero shots intercutting the survivor testimony sometimes feeling out of place, more glam than substance.
This is definitely a glam-doc. Heemeyer’s dead, of course, so one “star” is absent. Then too, the dozer sometimes referred to as the ‘killdozer’ in the following years, is also absent. Granby’s officials decided to scrap it after the event. They did so by dismantling it and distributing its many parts to various scrap yards in order to prevent souvenir taking. Remember, this was 2004, before the full cell phone diaspora exploded across the globe. While footage of the event exists—there were news choppers and dashboard cameras from police cruisers, and even some local amateur photography and videography—it’s 2004 quality and shot from less than ideal conditions.
Solet is interested in telling that part of the story with the real footage but needed more in order to get to that point. As such, he reconstructed these two principals by building a replica of the machine that Heemeyer used and hiring an actor to play the man himself for the various scenes documenting the build and reveal of the dozer. These scenes in particular make it difficult for me to rate this film as strongly as I’d like. I understand the need and the narrative goals that led to the decision to go this route, but I’m not sure I can get behind it. This feels like Michael Bay taking the helm of a documentary to make it bigger than the historical evidence would allow.
Shorten the film, don’t over glamorize the rebuilt behemoth of a machine and tell it like it was. Yes, the machine is the thing that will bring an audience, but even narration explaining its fate could have been used to explain its absence. Instead, it was built, shot to the best of modern tech’s ability and some of the first responders were even brought into to replay their parts—there’s a lot of pointless shooting at this thing, including a moment when one cop excitedly brings another (a sharpshooter) a .50 caliber machine gun to try on it (to no effect).
I think what’s most frightening about Tread is not the event itself. As I said, no one but the perpetrator was killed. What’s most frightening, and what makes this documentary succeed as a story, is the will behind the events that transpired. It’s that ingenuity, that deviousness, that commitment to a purpose, made manifest by the bulldozer, that is terrifying. For if it can be done once, it can be done again. What will the next pushed-to-the-limit, don’t-tread-on-me American think to do to get their revenge? I don’t want to know. I’m not sure we gain an understanding from this exploration of the event, but perhaps it can help teach people to watch for the warning signs of impending danger.