Friday, June 22, 2007

Rescue Dawn

In 1965, US fighter pilot Dieter Dengler was shot down over Laos during a top-secret bombing raid. He was soon captured and taken to a Viet Cong POW camp, where he was tortured and starved until he managed to escape into the dense surrounding jungle, headed for Thailand.

Director Werner Herzog recounted this story in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and now he fictionalizes it with actor Christian Bale in the role of Dengler in Rescue Dawn. This new film finds Herzog still dealing with the classic themes that have permeated all his most famous work - the struggle of man against nature, most notably - but in a decidedly more mainstream, straight-forward and narrative manner than his previous work.

In fact, Herzog seems to purposefully remove any traces of himself from the film, almost like he's issuing a corrective for his intrusion into the scope of films like Grizzly Man and the original Little Dieter. (Not that I think Herzog doesn't belong in there. I love both of those films. But the connection is intentionally and plainly made when Herzog has Bale actually speak the line "Little Dieter needed to fly" early in this film. And it's hard to overlook the fact that Dieter tells this same story with Herzog's narration while this time around he remains not only silent but more reserved, buried behind his technical proficiency. Even the real military film, which Herzog mocked in voice-over in the documentary, is brought back, mocked in this film by Dieter and his fellow servicemen.

What's left, then, without the usual Herzogness, is just an exceedingly well-constructed, intense and surprisingly intimate adventure story about the near-inhuman reserves of courage, grit and determination that allowed Dengler to survive this ridiculously harrowing ordeal.

Bale's performance is very interesting, particularly in the early passages in the prison camp. (He lost his usual 55 pounds to film the role, which at this point isn't even surprising any more. It's like, "Oh, look, Bale's emaciated again...Yawn...")

Dieter's unflappable and cocky, a mix between Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and Tom Cruise from Top Gun, which isn't quite what you'd anticipate from a guy who's been dragged around a Laotian village and hung upside down with an ant's nest strapped to his face. (McQueen even got to keep his baseball!)

We only realize later that this inner calm is the only thing keeping Dengler alive. We're really seeing two parallel stories: Dengler's race to freedom and the fraying of his tenuous grip on reality. Is he so positive and forward-thinking because he's not entirely sane?

In the prison, Dengler meets some similarly unhinged long-time prisoners. Gene (Jeremy Davies, upsettingly thin and channeling Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now) has convinced himself that he and his fellow prisoners will be let go "any day now." He reacts with shock and horror to Dieter's escape plans. Duane (Steve Zahn), on the other hand, gradually warms to the idea of escape, if only because he's tired of sleeping each night chained to several other grown men, pooping his pants and eating bugs for protein.

This has got to be Zahn's best performance ever. He's suffering in every scene in which he appears; there are no good times for Duane and Dieter. Their friendship begins and ends amidst hardship and extreme trauma. Yet Zahn makes Duane charming, funny and likable. He's constantly injured or complaining, but he also seems like a fun person to be around. That can't be an easy combination to pull off. (A simple scene in which Dieter and Duane stock an imaginary fridge effectively and amusingly establishes the friendship that drives the entire film.)

This really strikes me as Herzog's central focus in Rescue Dawn, the juxtaposition of beauty and horror. (Okay, it's the central focus of at least 65-70% of his work, including Grizzly Man). One beautiful shot sums the whole thing up nicely:

We open on a caterpillar crawling along a lush, green leaf. A hand enters the frame - it's Dieter's - and removes the leaf, and we see Duane, filthy, balled up in the fetal position and deathly ill underneath. The world is a beautiful place, and perfectly suited for human life, but it's also brutally violent and terrifying. The place that appears the most vibrant and inviting is the worst and most inhospitable environment imaginable.

(Interestingly, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto takes the diametrically-opposite approach. As the danger facing the protagonist increases, the environment around him becomes more desolate and bleak. That scene with the creepy little girl pointing and chanting really drives the message home. How do you know a place is evil? Because it's ugly and filled with bad people. I'm not knocking Gibson's film, which I liked enough. Herzog's is better.)

Speaking of violence and terror, there really isn't as much action in this film as I had expected and certainly not when compared to Apocalypto. When all is said and done, Rescue Dawn is fairly low-key. Bear in mind that, for Herzog, any film that doesn't involve moving opera houses over mountains or conquering continents can officially be considered "low-key." Ambitious tactics and extravagant plans don't help Duane and Dieter survive in the Laotian jungle. Slow movement, careful planning, conservation of resources and pluck work far better.

Herzog takes his time; rather than rushing between incidents, he lets madness slowly creep in along the edges of the frame, eventually consuming his characters. There's a Kinski-esque element to both lead performances, with a constant state of panicked alertness morphs tragically into wild-eyed dementia. (I doubt, however, that either of them were tempted to pull a firearm on their director).

The guys trade back and forth a found shoe, worn down to almost nothing. Dieter suggests Duane put it on the foot that's more banged up, as if it could possibly make a difference, as if it will be better for his feet to give out here or 50 feet from here. Through it all, Dieter keeps his hopes up, he stays focused on making it to Thailand and getting back to America, on being a pilot once again. How could anyone possibly do it? That's the question at the heart of Rescue Dawn. How could even the most proud and vital human spirit take this kind of punishment?

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