It's not exactly the case that I disliked Rescue Dawn because it is a distinctly uncharacteristic project for director Werner Herzog; nor is it exactly the case that I disliked Rescue Dawn because it is essentially a retread of ground that Herzog himself covered to Olympian perfection in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Really, it's not exactly the case that I disliked Rescue Dawn at all. It does many things right, and just about zero things wrong, with the single and kind of unfortunately glaring exception of never actually justifying its own existence.
The true story: in 1943, five-year-old Dieter Dengler watched in fascination as American planes flew a bombing raid over his village, Wildberg. During the attack, he was able to look an American pilot briefly in the eye, and experienced a moment of what can only be called spiritual ecstasy, and from that moment, "little Dieter wanted to fly," to quote both of the films based on his experience.
Flash forward past bureaucratic intrigues to 1966, when 28-year-old Dengler had finally been admitted into the US Navy as an airman (the irony of joining the same national military that destroyed his home having never been lost on the man), flying over Laos on the very first of the illicit bombing raids our best and brightest commissioned against the Vietcong forces in that country, and on his very first combat flight ever, Dengler was shot down.
He was captured after a few days by Laotian guerrillas, and imprisoned in a horrible little camp deep in the jungle, where food was scarce and the guards were imprisoned just as thoroughly as the POWs. After a few months waiting for the rainy season, Dengler and one of his fellow prisoners escaped into the jungle, finding it to be worse, if anything, than the camp they'd left behind, and it was almost entirely a matter of dumb luck that Dengler was rescued a few weeks later.
Flash forward again, this time to 1997, when the noted psychopath and filmmaker Werner Herzog was commissioned to film an episode for a German television documentary series about exceptional individuals. Perhaps finding a certain kinship in the story of a German expatriate, and a man who had survived an extraordinary trial in the jungle, Herzog turned his camera on Dengler and created one of the most exceptional non-fiction films in history.
Dieter Dengler died of ALS in 2001, and five years later Herzog got it into his mind to make a fictionalized version of the man's story, for reasons that are best left inside Herzog's mind, a place that no semi-sane man would ever wish to visit for even a moment. And so we have this film in which Christian Bale plays Dengler, here restored to the innocent if slightly ditzy young flyboy of happier days.
For at least two obvious reasons - they're slow-paced and they're depressing - prison camp movies have never been the most prolific subgenre of the War Picture, but perhaps owing to their relative rarity, they mostly tend to be pretty high-quality, and as far as genre is concerned, Rescue Dawn is a knockout. In these days when seemingly every third film is a paean to torturing the human body, this one manages to actually make it stick, despite showing no graphic violence whatsoever. Partially this is due to the willingness of Bale and his co-stars to essentially starve themselves down to skeletons during the shoot (a trick Bale first employed to yet more terrifying effect in The Machinist*), and so the film really is an experiment in body mortification (and thus, story and production method meet and are one, and it is truly a Werner Herzog film). And partially this is due to the languor with which Herzog's camera rests on the indignities visited upon Dieter and his companions, never rubbing our noses in anything (PG-13, after all), but never allowing us to look away, either. Why, just the larvae-eating scene (which Bale, not Herzog, insisted on) takes up three or four years. Or maybe it just felt that way. Which is the point.
Never let it be said that this is made with anything less than consummate perfectionism on the part of the director, and with not one, nor two, but three young actors in their respective career peaks, with Steve Zahn as the neurotic Duane and Jeremy Davies as the tweaked-out optimist Gene. Both of them give revelatory performances that never stand above the film's mise en scène, instead giving it flesh and humanity. Bale is something else entirely, a combination of homage and performance, taking the unmistakable fact of Dieter Dengler as he was so unforgettably shown in Little Dieter Needs to Fly and turning him into a role even more than Herzog had already done in the first place.
Yessir, unmistakable professionalism all around, the final product providing an exceptionally precise depiction of the alternation between tedium and hellishness that the very best films assure us is found in every war. The pace is tight, the images are arresting, the direction is clear and purposeful.
Who the holy fuck wants Werner Herzog to be a consummate professional? The man is one of the impossibly few true visionaries in the history of the medium, responsible for some of the most hallucinatory fiction films and most inscrutable quasi-documentaries imaginable. It turns out that when he turns his hand to a polished American-style entertainment, it's pretty much awesome; but a lot of people can make pretty much awesome entertainment.
There are certainly flashes of vintage Herzog in Rescue Dawn, notably in the opening, in which images of napalm runs set to Klaus Badelt's alternately brooding and annoyingly gung-ho score recall Lessons of Darkness or The Wild Blue Yonder. But in the main, this feels much too...I hesitate to use the word "simple"...much too prosaic for the director. This is the man whose previous explorations of men fighting the oppressive naturalism of the jungle made Klaus Kinski look even less stable than he really was. Bale's Dengler goes to some of the same intense places, but they're much more user friendly.
Perhaps the strangest anti-Herzogism is that Rescue Dawn is an unmixed paean to heroism and its hero (especially in the final scene, which although completely historically accurate, feels like a recruiting video). Quite a change from Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in which the second half of the film plays as a series of mind games and power struggles between two very personality-laden Germans, culminating in Herzog's experiment in forcing Dengler to essentially relive his experience in an unabashedly cruel trip back to Laos. That psychotic edge doesn't exist within the same aesthetic universe as Rescue Dawn.
The key, then, is to not think about it as a Herzog film (which I was able to do with great concentration), and just as a really top-tier war drama. Because for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be, it's pretty great. It's just that what I wanted it to be would have been so damned much better.