I’m not going to address Werner Herzog’s new feature as an adaptation of his
own documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. In part because it’s been years
since I saw the doc, but more important is that the comparison isn’t what
makes this movie good, not is it the point of sale for the mainstream
audience that should turn out to see it.
Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a navy pilot about to fly his first
mission over Laos during the secret buildup to the Vietnam war. Shot down
almost before the mission has begun, Dengler is captured and held in a
makeshift POW camp with a handful of Air America pilots. Any veteran of
prison movies, especially wartime prison break flicks, has seen this basic
framework before. There are only so many ways, after all, that men can loose
themselves from a jungle jail.
Two things differentiate Rescue Dawn, neither of which are that it’s based
on fact. The first is Herzog’s own priorities; his admiration for the story
is obvious and his fascination with the conflict between man and nature is
readily evident. We first see the pilots scorning an educational film
recommending the use of large leaves as hats and cover, then observe Dengler
doing exactly that to blend in with the jungle as he evades the VC. When
pressed with violence, the Laotian guards cut and run; Dengler’s battle is
with the harsh environment around him more than the other men within.
The second differentiating factor is Bale, who is magnificent. His
dedication and ability make him a perfect choice for the role, but so does
his history. When Dengler talks about the memory that cemented his need to
fly, it recalls the young Bale cheering on American pilots in Empire of the
Sun. Casting Bale adds massive resonance to Rescue Dawn. This marks the
return of The Machinist‘s emaciated Bale, but his presence here is always
fiery and alert, even when his body withers.
Two things surprised me. One was Steve Zahn, who turns in the best dramatic
work he’s ever done; this performance might set an unreachable benchmark in
his career. As a cowed, hollowed Air America POW, Zahn matches Bale point
for point, and adds some of the film’s most poignant moments.
Also remarkable is Herzog’s craft. He’s a master, yes, but his dramatic
films frequently have a ramshackle, stitched together quality. It’s part of
their charm; Herzog movies always feel as if they were on the brink of
disaster. This represents an about-face. It’s polished, brisk and perfectly
assured. The last couple of years feel like a second (or third, or fourth)
coming for the director, and Rescue Dawn could finally make the mainstream
aware of one of our great filmmakers.
8.4 out of 10