Monday, May 31, 2010


Directed by Werner Herzog

Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

The story of Dieter Dengler is one that director Werner Herzog loves so much that he felt the need to tell it twice. In 1998 Herzog directed the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which told the story of German emigrant turned American Navy pilot Dengler, and which relied heavily on the magnetic and joyous personality of its subject.

Herzog approaches the material this time around with a more traditional narrative telling the story in a more polished, Hollywood, style with famous actors portraying the roles of Dengler (Christian Bale) and his prison-mates. While "Hollywood" and "polished" aren't usually words associated with Werner Herzog, Rescue Dawn still contains elements of the director's obsession with man versus wild, exotic location filming (utilizing native peoples), and moments of absurd humor.

Excited to fly his first reconnaissance mission in Laos (pre-Vietnam War), Dieter Dengler is an magnetic and intelligent young man. Popular on his ship, the USS Ranger, Dengler is shot down during his air-run and subsequently captured by Lao troops. Paraded through towns, tortured, and humiliated, Dengler is finally taken to a POW camp, where he is introduced to the other prisoners, including Air America pilots Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), and Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies). Refusing to be held captive, Dengler soon begins to devise a plan of escape, meeting resistance from no man in the prison camp except for Eugene.

Although Rescue Dawn is intense in parts and features scenes of surprising violence, it's obvious that Herzog isn't interested in making a by-the-numbers prison escape film. The near-misses of being discovered by the guards and the escape itself is first-rate nail biting stuff, but the director spends little time on build-up or post-violence carnage. Instead Herzog is curiously fascinated with minutia such as a little boy holding a wing-beating beetle on a string up to Dengler's face, or an ant-nest tied to Dengler as he dangles upside-down from a rope. What interests Herzog isn't the mundane day to day prison camp living or the treatment the prisoners received from their fellow man, but how being let-loose in nature (in this case the dense, wet jungles of Southeast Asia can be more of a prison than being held against one's will in a bamboo cabin.

All throughout Rescue Dawn we sense Herzog's desire to get the men out of the prison camp and into the wild (it is no spoiler to say that they escape and are rescued - but exactly who I will not say). Eugene, who threatens to sabotage Dengler's plan as he believes the military will come for them shortly, is as much an annoyance to the director as he is to Dengler. The character's fortitude to escape the camp goes hand-in-hand with the director's need to escape the movie set (an on-location set, but a set nonetheless) and shoot in the unpredictable and dangerous wild.

There are many things to like about Rescue Dawn, not the least of which is the character of Dieter Dengler. Christan Bale isn't the first actor you'd think of to play a jolly, good-natured man like Dengler, but his performance downright brilliant. When Dieter gives a monologue to Duane about why he left Germany to become an American pilot, it's as great a moment as any Bale has had in his career, and not since he played Patrick Bateman in American Psycho has the actor been so engaging. It helps that Herzog is completely in love with Dengler, but it's hard not to fall for an individual as effervescent and relentlessly positive as this one. (The real Dengler can be seen in great detail in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The documentary rests very heavily Dengler telling his own story, and the man is a master storyteller.)

Surprisingly, Steve Zahn holds his own against his more lauded co-star. As the vulnerable and broken Duane, Zahn's performance is at times heartbreaking, and it's great to see the mostly comic actor do some serious, affecting work.

Davies brings a New Agey, incredibly fragile psyche to Eugene DeBruin. The actor's usual ticks and mannerisms work to his great advantage here, as Eugene's psychosis evolves throughout the film's running time.

Although it's by far Herzog's most mainstream film to date and, in the end, relies on a cliched Hollywood inspirational coda (which is actually fine with me - the story of Deter Dengler is so inspiring and magnificent anyway that it deserves a sentimental send-off), Rescue Dawn is a finely crafted and fascinating film. Werner Herzog continues to show the world that he is one of its best and most consistent filmmakers.

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