The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, January 19, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Rescue Dawn

Originally published July 26, 2007
Full review behind the jump

Rescue Dawn

: Werner Herzog
: Werner Herzog
: Elton Brand, Harry Knapp, Steve Marlton
: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Abhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul, Kriangsak Ming-olo, Yuttana Muenwaja, Teerawat Mulvilai, Somkuan 'Kuan' Siroon, Chorn Solyda, Saichia Wongwiroj

Death did not want him.”
-Werner Herzog, narrating his documentary
Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about pilot and former POW Dieter Dengler

It was Jean-Luc Godard who wrote that the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. And it was writer/director/documentarian Werner Herzog who said: “
Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” Herzog is also known for driving actors to madness and being shot in the middle of interviews, but as I watched Rescue Dawn, an intensely beautiful and uplifting story of survival set in the pre-Tonkin days of the Vietnam War, I remembered Godard’s maxim, and thought: someone has finally answered Full Metal Jacket.

If Stanley Kubrick’s hypnotic mishmash from 1987 saw the Vietnam-era military as a vast machine for the crushing of petty individual humanity in a morally-ambiguous purgatory (which is how Kubrick saw everything, I suppose), then
Rescue Dawn overthrows that conceit by spotlighting one man with enough will to resist it. It is a story about a German immigrant of questionable sanity, made by a German immigrant of questionable sanity, which becomes through blood and mud and suffering one of the more stirring celebrations of the American character you might ever see. It is about a man who does not succumb or surrender, but endures terrible experiences with invention, determination, and a kind of quirky faith in the thing he loves that allows him to look beyond the confines of his circumstances. No matter how hard fate may work to squash him, he continues to reassert himself, as if he can convince Death to give up trying.

When Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was young he watched out his window as planes strafed his village; and rather than run he decided to become a pilot. In a way this was the sign of a lifelong pattern; an urge to master whatever threatens him. He loves flying so much it seems like a talisman, the skills he learned while pursuing it all come to his aid when he needs them most.

Dengler is shot down while flying a secret mission over Laos; and before long is captured by guerillas. When separated from their individual national war machines, when it’s just man-to-man, prisoner to captor, they almost don’t seem to know what to do with each other. The guerillas shout at him, push him around and threaten him, tie him up in the village square, but there’s a nigh-invisible hesitance: they are supposed to hate him, but to look at him they’re not sure why. Maybe it’s because he always meets their gaze – he does not act like a captive.

Eventually he is deposited at a prison camp surrounded by a bamboo fence and miles upon miles of impenetrably thick jungle. Herzog is famous for the way he captures locations and wildlife; and this hot, buzzing, dangerous place with its snakes and giant bugs is a rich playground for his camera, and helps make up for a budget he’s clearly forced to squeeze for every last penny. With this authenticity of environment, you can feel it exerting pressure on prisoners and jailers alike.

Two other Americans are already there: CIA contractor Gene (Jeremy Davies) is convinced that secret negotiations are going to end this geopolitical dust-up any day now (he’s been in over two years), while soldier Duane (Steve Zahn) is so withered by seclusion and hopelessness that he has no fight of his own left, but hungrily borrows some of Dieter’s.

Since first winning the notice of audiences in Saving Private Ryan, Davies has made mumbly paranoia his stock-in-trade; the skeletal physique and Manson hairdo added here look unnervingly appropriate on top of what is not an unusual turn for him. It’s Zahn, normally known for comedy, that truly surprises. His Duane is fearful, passive, almost infantile. Dieter may be here with a plan to escape, but even taking Duane out of the jail might not be enough to save his decaying sanity. There’s a tenderness to their relationship; it’s revealing the way Dieter takes responsibility for Duane without ever treating him as less than a man.

Despite Herzog’s well-cultivated reputation for wildness this is not a difficult movie to watch. It’s a PG-13 movie, much of its violence is implied or viewed indirectly. It’s more interested in the simmering anger as the prisoners make their plans, and the guards realize no more food shipments are coming. It’s interested in the tolls taken on minds, and the details of a prison break in a prison where the only pieces of technology around are the guard’s guns and the prisoners’ chains; where a plan can be built around the procurement of a single nail.

And it’s most interested of all in Dieter Dengler, whom Herzog befriended and made a documentary about before his death, and just what empowered him to resist this ordeal. Even before he’s first put in the prison camp, he’s offered the chance to enjoy a gentler sentence by signing a propaganda statement denouncing the US and its military involvement in Asia. His refusal is automatic, and the reason is not political; he just could never disavow the country that allowed him to fly. There’s a totality to his sense of himself, like he has merged his identity with the thing that he does, and simply does not countenance anything that tries to come between them.

It falls on Christian Bale, who is smart to spend his Batman-earned bankability on projects like this, to embody this peculiar hero and convince us, and there’s an intelligence to his performance that closes the deal. In one scene he’s mistakenly fired upon by an American helicopter, and as he dives for cover he yells at them: “You idiots! You almost killed me!” There’s a precision to the way he articulates this line – it’s as if he’s affronted. Surely, they should have known that he’s not going to die today. It’s not something he has to reassure himself about, he just knows. Either he’s going to be killed or he’s not; “almost” just annoys him. Seeing the conviction Bale creates in moments like that, I was not at all surprised to learn that after the events of Rescue Dawn, one of the most emotionally-satisfying movies of the year, the real Dieter Dengler survived four more plane crashes.


Post a Comment

<< Home