Helmer Werner Herzog has long delighted in smudging the line between documentary and fiction. His latest, "Rescue Dawn," goes an intriguing step further by dramatizing a story Herzog already told once in his 1997 docu "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," about Dieter Dengler, a fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965.
Helmer Werner Herzog has long delighted in smudging the line between documentary and fiction. His latest, “Rescue Dawn,” goes an intriguing step further by dramatizing a story Herzog already told once in his 1997 docu “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” about Dieter Dengler, a fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965. Socko, kudo-worthy lead perf by Christian Bale, plot’s deeply compelling account of survival and pic’s obvious relevance to the war in Iraq could spell solid B.O. after its December bow. However, helmer’s more passionate followers may find plainly told pic less rich in Herzogian “ecstatic truth” than usual.
In “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog dispenses with any buildup, revealing how German-born Dengler, who in reality retained a thick German accent all his life, came to be a U.S. Air Force fight lieutenant. Sounding entirely American, Bale’s version of Dengler at first seems more like just another cocky young recruit, keen as a blade to get up into the skies for his maiden combat flight, a top-secret bombing raid over Laos in 1965.
Before flying out, Dengler and his fellow pilots watch an authentic military information film from the period about surviving in the jungle, the exact same one mocked by Herzog’s own voiceover in “Little Dieter” for its naive advice — such as don’t forget to wave at helicopters flying right above you.
Here the pilots themselves cynically heckle the info movie, but an extra irony is added that pays off beautifully at the end when some of its strategies turn out to be eminently sensible.
Once airborne, Dengler has barely dropped more than few bombs before he’s shot down. Hardly injured, he survives for a night or two alone before being captured by a ragged squad of Laotian soldiers.
Helmer’s script doesn’t quite make the point clear here, but those who have seen “Little Dieter” will understand that Dengler’s bravery in the face of innumerable threats to kill him stemmed partly from his knowledge that the Viet Cong considered him more useful alive than dead.
Even so, his captors have no qualms about torturing him. An ant’s nest is tied to his face. His hands and feet tied, he’s dragged by a cow across a village and nearly drowned in a shallow well. (Key shots make clear that Bale, rather than a double, seems to be enduring most of these ordeals himself.) And yet, when he’s offered a chance to be released in a couple of weeks if he’ll only sign a statement denouncing American imperialism (a false promise, as it turns out), he refuses. “I love America,” he insists. “America gave me wings.”
Finally, he ends up in a POW camp, where he meets two fellow American prisoners: gentle if somewhat broken-spirited Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), who keeps insisting the war will be over soon so they shouldn’t try to escape. He also meets three more sketchily limned Southeast Asians, English-speaker Y.C. (Galen Yuen), wiry Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul) and more stolid Procet (Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat).
Auds with shorter attention spans may fidget slightly during pic’s long midsection in the camp, which effectively gets across the endurance test that was this experience. Dengler proves himself to be a natural leader, whose combo of unique skills (he happens to know how to unpick handcuffs) and sheer pig-headed will to survive keep his fellow prisoners’ spirits up while they endure brutality from the guards and wait for the rainy season to start, when it makes more sense to escape.
Final act, however, quickens the pace and proves highly moving as Dengler and Duane, grown closer than lovers or friends could ever be, chivvy and support each other through the long march through the jungle. Meanwhile, waterborne scenes on a raft tip the hat to similar sequences in such Herzog classics as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972) and “Fitzcarraldo” (1982).
Indeed, at times Bale seems to be channeling some of the crazed intensity of the late Klaus Kinski, star of the aforementioned. Slimmed down, as is the rest of the cast (Davies looks practically skeletal), almost to the anorexic weight he achieved for “The Machinist,” Bale proffers a remarkably physical perf that also shares some of Kinski’s grace in motion.
Zahn, so often cast in lighter roles as a stoner goofball or just comic relief, more than holds his own against Bale, especially in his last scenes. On the thesping front, pic’s one weak spot is Davies, typically twitchy, mannered and mumbling so much it’s hard to make out his dialogue, although for some his addled attitude may seem to suit the period.
Otherwise, as far as establishing a sense of period goes, Herzog cleaves to a refreshing less-is-more philosophy. This may be the first Vietnam-set film in history not to feature a bar of Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones or indeed any other rock music on its soundtrack. Instead, apart from Klaus Bartle’s keening original score, featuring mournful cellos and piano tones, music used includes Wagnerian opera and other classical compositions. Helmer even eschews deploying the offbeat, world-music discoveries that often make his other films so distinctive.
Indeed, pic reps arguably Herzog’s most straightforward, least original film for some time, and suspicions linger that he may have seen it as a last-chance crack at making a bigger-budgeted, mainstream venture that could earn coin and backing for more unusual future projects. Having said that, this polished, cleanly made pic still packs a wrenching emotional punch and, if backed by critics and auds, could earn more for Herzog than his last 10 features put together.
Resonances with current situation in Iraq — the deluded belief it will all be over soon, the scenes of torture that echo Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — are there, but not overstated. In fact, final scenes, using thousands of extras from the Thai army (Thailand was used for some locations), have an almost gung-ho, pro-soldier if not pro-military, quality, and rep the only major deviation from the story told in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”
Craft contributions from lenser Peter Zietlinger and editor Joe Bini, both of whom worked on “Little Dieter” and are regular, career-spanning Herzog collaborators, are first rate.