There's a shot late in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn that is on par with anything the master has ever produced. An emaciated, bewildered Christian Bale stands slightly to the right of center-screen. The top half of his torso is visible, and he's wearing a tattered flight suit, rendered grey by the dirt and grit of months of imprisonment. Behind Bale, almost filling the screen, is the Laotian jungle, an impenetrable curtain of giant leaves and dense shadow. Bale is slightly out of focus and the jungle behind him more-so; as we gaze upon it, the shot morphs from a recognizable image into a flood of colors and emotion -- there must be 20 different shades of green on display, and everything looks a little too bright to be real. It's a magical, breathtaking moment, and the kind of thing fans of Herzog have come to expect from his films. The problem is that there are no more like it in Rescue Dawn, a disappointingly by-the-numbers effort from a filmmaker of rare and true genius.
Based upon the experiences of Dieter Dengler, an American whose time as a POW in Viet Nam Herzog told in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn stars Bale as Dengler, a gung-ho pilot shot down during his first mission, a bombing run over Laos. Quickly captured by communist soldiers and eventually handed over to the Viet Cong, Dengler finds himself one of six American and Vietnamese inmates (including Steve Zahn and a terrifyingly thin Jeremy Davies) of a small prison camp somewhere in Laos. Conditions in the camp are dreadful and, based on its skeletal occupants, they've been that way for a while. There is almost no food, and the prisoners are often bound in a row on their backs, their feet in stocks and their arms crossed across their chests, wrists cuffed to their neighbors'.
The story of life in the camp and Dengler's subsequent escape is a much more narrative-heavy tale than those depicted in Herzog's best films, and the focus on story severely handcuffs the director. Herzog is great in part because he's unconventional: Unfettered by traditional expectations, he creates films out of atmosphere and tone, not story. His truly great efforts -- Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Lessons of Darkness -- are all about feel. They tell interesting stories, yes, but they're powerful because they create hypnotic, all-encompassing emotional worlds that engulf the viewer, not because they feature engaging dialogue or clever twists. Furthermore, Herzog's best characters are madmen; dreamers. Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre, Stroszek and Kaspar Hauser don't share our world -- they can exist only within the heightened realities of Herzog's films, where anything is possible and the mad sometimes achieve the impossible.
Rescue Dawn offers none of these things. Instead of the wild-eyed, all-seeing Fitzcarraldo, we have Dengler, played by Bale as a cocksure, all-American boy -- he's the kind of movie hero who's always right, and offers comfort to his companions when they're weak. He can do more on no food that anyone around him, and never tires or loses hope. There's nothing individual or interesting about him and, by the end of the film, we're aching to be free of his bland, exhaustingly positive company. And Bale doesn't help his director any by delivering most of his lines in a flatly accented shout -- the only wrinkle he throws in is that sometimes the shouts are hoarse whispers, while at other times they're delivered in full voice.
Visually, Herzog as a filmmaker is at home in the jungle. In his hands, nature is always both awesome and threatening, and the Laotian wilderness in Rescue Dawn is no exception. Based on the periodic, unmotivated shots of trees and underbrush, one gets the distinct impression that the director would prefer to leave the tedious POW story behind in favor of something far more interesting that now only lurks in the background. It's sad to see these stabs at atmosphere, because his own screenplay doesn't allow Herzog the room he needs to flex his muscles as a filmmaker.
Instead of spinning another haunting new world for us to enter, Herzog is reduced to the role of technician, working in service of a flat, uninteresting story. Rescue Dawn is a terrible waste of a brilliantly talented man's skills, and a profound disappointment as a result.