As a good film scholar/geek, I have tried to enjoy the films of Werner Herzog over the years, but I haven't yet seen enough of them to find many that I particularly like, although I respect them as good films. That's a discreet way of telling you that I nearly fell asleep during The Wild Blue Yonder, can't remember a thing about Heart of Glass or Aguirre: The Wrath of God when I watched them for classes in college and haven't yet seen Fitzcarraldo, although it's on my list. In short, I'm not a rabid Herzog fan, which may actually be the reason why I liked his latest film, Rescue Dawn, as much as I did. Based on Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, this fictional adaptation has a typical linear narrative structure and tells a clear and unambiguous story.
Christian Bale stars as the aforementioned Dieter Dengler, who has wanted nothing more in life but to be a fighter pilot (thus the title of the documentary). The film is set during the Vietnam War, and you know from the first scene, a group of U.S. Navy pilots watching a lame survival film, that someone's going to get lost in the wilds. Sure enough, Dieter's plane is shot down over Laos, in a strikingly gorgeous and terrifying jungle. Dieter is eventually captured and taken to a POW camp in the middle of the jungle, where the Viet Cong jailers don't seem to be in much better condition than the prisoners. His fellow prisoners include Gene (Jeremy Davies) and Duane (Steve Zahn), all half-crazed from the terrible conditions. However, Dieter is determined to escape -- he wants to survive, and fly again.
Of course, movies about POWs trying to escape have been part of Hollywood for years, and you might recall Stalag 17 or The Great Escape. But Rescue Dawn raises the stakes for these prisoners, and shows a much grimmer situation. These guys aren't restless patriots who can't stand to be trapped until the end of the war; instead, they know if they don't escape, they'll almost certainly die. No one had to eat worms and bugs to survive in Stalag 17. On the other hand, the ending of Rescue Dawn seems a little too Hollywood, too pat and almost sweet, which jars with the rest of the film. The ending is supposedly faithful to the facts, but in this case a little less fidelity might have made for a more consistent film.
The actors have the chance to shine in that Oscar-nominatable way during the POW scenes. Bale has the chance to show us how fabulously he can lose weight -- once again he has a role where he becomes gaunt and even emaciated. This time he's joined by Davies as a rival in emaciation. Dieter is a bit of a jerk, maybe even more than a bit, and yet Bale manages to make him sympathetic. Watching these guys being abused might remind more than one person of the current controversy with our country's own policy on the treatment of POWs. The jungle itself is virtually a character in this film, an amoral and rapacious one, if occasionally stereotyped in a traditional Hollywood way.
Over at The Reeler, Lewis Beale chides critics for not viewing Rescue Dawn in its proper historical context, and contends that it is a "seriously racist film." I had noticed that the Laotian captors were not well-rounded characters, but I would not have gone quite so far as to call the film racist. However, it's an issue that does deserve some thought and discussion. Perhaps the reason why the POW camp had no food was because the American military had been bombing all the Laotian fields, a connection that would have added depth to the movie if it had been pointed out.
Herzog fans have scoffed at Rescue Dawn, with comments ranging from "His most accessible film" (that's not meant as a compliment) to "Too commercial and bland, one of his weakest efforts." Former Cinematical East Coast Editor Martha Fischer, who loves all things Herzog, reviewed the movie in Toronto last year and called it "a terrible waste of a brilliantly talented man's skills, and a profound disappointment as a result." However, I'm often a sucker for conventional storytelling done well, and Herzog does a very good job with a movie that is much more traditional in form than his usual projects. So perhaps the Herzog fans will be more satisfied re-watching Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and those of us with a weakness for linear narrative can settle back and enjoy the lush visuals and fascinating story behind the feature.