Jun 28, 2007

On Rescue Dawn

The Vietnam War has been captured from just about every angle in the American cinema (except, perhaps, a legitimately Vietnamese perspective), but the inimitable Werner Herzog has given us a film in "Rescue Dawn" that takes a decidedly apolitical, humanist perspective that is both atypical of his work and the broad majority of Vietnam films to come out of the Hollywood system. Based on the story of Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966, Rescue Dawn proves a wonderful homage to Dengler and an able campanion piece to Herzog’s documentary about the man, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

A brave, large hearted man, Dengler, as portrayed by the versatile chameleon Christian Bale, is a bigger than life figure, who channeled his inner Macgyver to help himself and several POWs escape a Laotian internment camp over the during the summer of 66’. In genre it rests firmly in the POW escape film tradition of "The Bridge Over The River Kwai" or "The Great Escape", but this slice of ‘Nam kammerspiel belongs on its own plane, as it traces at delicate path between Herzog’s career long motifs (Man vs. Nature, the line between madness and genius, random grotesquery, how our ideologies collapse under the weight of stress and mania) with Hollywood conventions, a grammar of set-ups, pay-offs and leading musical cues which seem foreign to the German auteur’s oeuvre.

Of course, most of the press regarding the film since its bow at last year’s Toronto Film Festival (where it received a decidedly mixed series of notices) has surrounded the squabbles between Herzog, his regular team and the Fox producers who financed and oversaw the production. The film, shot in Thailand, was beset with production problems, from hurricanes to a disgruntled crew, many of which, unaccustomed to working in Herzog’s idiosyncratic style, quit the production mid-way through.

But of course, he soldiered on. The film features fabulous performances from his top-flight young American performers, Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn, who bring their A-game to the Werner Herzog hi-jinks, which is perhaps not the most hospitable environment to work. Davies is tailored made as a veteran POW who, locked away for two years, doubts the prospects of escape that Dengler is so gung-ho about. He has that whacked out, I can’t lie, I look like Charles Manson thing that worked to such good effect in "Solaris" and "Helter Skelter" from moment one, but he kicks the pathos into another gear when they finally escape and we realize the full extent to which his been broken by internment and starvation. Zahn is a able sidekick to Bale’s Dengler, and what a shame it is that one of the concessions Herzog must have made to his Fox backers (or perhaps the MPAA) was to lessen the visceral effect of his beheading, which is awkwardly edited and loses all of the power a similar beheading in "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" had. Regardless, at the end of the day one leaves Rescue Dawn, an exuberant and satisfying film that truly earns its Hollywood ending, feeling the New German Cinema’s most enduring figure is at the top of his form.