Rescue Dawn

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Lena Herzog/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Werner Herzog/United States 2007

Werner Herzog has always had an affinity for the jungle and he returns to his favorite setting with Rescue Dawn, his first narrative feature of the past few years. This time the primal beast and maker of men that drove characters played by Klaus Kinski mad in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo plays a different kind of role.

It is transformed from a prison for the mind to a literal one, as Christian Bale embodies Dieter Dangler, a Vietnam POW held captive in Laos at the beginning of the conflict. Herzog made the real life Dieter the subject of his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly and here the filmmaker reconstitutes his extraordinary story as a grand Hollywood escape production.

With its panoramic views of the Laotian jungle and rich, nature film caliber photography, the picture upholds the Herzogian standard of visual beauty. Where it departs from the norm (if one could call it that) is in its ample, exciting adventure movie tension. It reaffirms the significant talents of the offbeat director, who shows himself able to master genre filmmaking in his first mainstream production.

It’s 1965. Naively optimistic Americans expect the conflict in Southeast Asia to end in weeks and Dieter is a recently enlisted Navy pilot on his first mission in the region. He’s shot down somewhere over Laos, captured by ragtag enemy forces and paraded through a hellish ordeal that ultimately finds him thrust into a POW camp populated by two deathly fellow countrymen, a few American friendly natives and lots of vicious guards. However Dieter’s unceasingly upbeat perspective means that he regards his imprisonment as a mere inconvenience and immediately begins orchestrating his escape.

Herzog’s fascination with the character makes sense. The improbability of Dieter’s triumph over the daunting, life-threatening odds posed by both the treacherous jungle and his human antagonists makes his journey more awe inspiring than those of Herzog’s most famous earlier protagonists. While slashing through the brush, traversing streams and confronting wild life, Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, for example, were never faced with the prospect of being hunted down by an entire army of rebels. The filmmaker loves individuals filled with ambition and blessed with the cojones to act on it; few could have more of each than Dieter.

The film, then, is as unlikely a story as any Herzog’s told. It also earns its place in the auteur’s canon by evoking enormous sympathy for Dieter and drawing out every bit of the human interest latent in his quest. Much of the credit for that must necessarily go to Bale, who immerses himself in a performance that fearlessly blends the raw emotions inherent in such a torturous experience with a dreamier, almost mystically upbeat quality.

His Dieter retains a palpable twinkle in his eye and always seems to be stifling a grin, even while starving and cuffed against the wooded floor of a tiny, overcrowded hut somewhere deep in the rainforest. The portrayal facilitates the audience’s understanding of the character and lends the film that rare, harmonious feel of a director and actor working completely in sync. They share the same affinity for the figure, admiring his ability to have big dreams and see them through despite being faced with the most disheartening of obstacles.

Many of those obstacles are manifested in prison-break clich├ęs, and the portrayal of the guards could hardly be considered fair and balanced. But Herzog’s not after an objective, fact based account and the movie, though a genre piece, is far too vibrant to be considered a worn out version of The Great Escape. Rather, Rescue Dawn proves nothing short of a rich, patriotic hymn to the spirit of America, Herzog’s beloved adopted country, as manifested in a man unwilling to lower his morale and sacrifice his drive to persevere no matter the hardship placed in his path. It is also sensationally thrilling, an action picture produced in the old-fashioned, character driven style, and crafted with engaging epic scope. Forget Transformers and the season’s other heavily marketed, CGI-heavy extravaganzas; this is the summer movie to see.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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