The Reeler


July 5, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Herzog's retelling of Dengler story conjures a moving if mixed surge of emotions

Dieter Dengler never wanted to go to war, he only wanted to fly. But for the subject of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, and Rescue Dawn, the director’s dramatic revisitation, war meant America, America meant flying, and flying meant war.

Herzog’s documentary traces the rather spectacular circularity of Dengler’s life more fully; having grown up in Germany during World War II, he and his family suffered under American bombing and then occupation. Following the war Germany’s aviation program was defunct, and so Dengler emigrated to join the U.S. Navy, where he could learn to fly for free -- or at least at the cost of eventually being shipped out to Laos to serve in what would be the beginning of the Vietnam War. In Rescue Dawn, we begin with the end of Dengler’s training, and the indomitable German’s eager over-assimilation arrives in the form of a notably accent-free Christian Bale.

Rescue Dawn opens with a re-purposing (as we used to say in public television) of Little Dieter’s aerial footage of a disturbingly hypnotic carpet-bombing -- brilliant blooms of fire opening over lime green swaths of land -- and Herzog re-asserts his fascination with the deception inherent in beauty, nature’s most vicious disguise. It is 1965 and Dengler is flying his first mission over a secret target in Laos. Having guffawed with his crew over the remedial advice offered in a survival training video, Dengler finds himself putting much of it into action when he is shot down in short order and stranded in the Laotian jungle.

Quickly captured by Pathet Lao soldiers, Dengler beams a giant, American smile at the locals as he is marched into their village, where a campaign of torture, taunting and humiliation begins. The prisoner becomes pet and voodoo doll both, a curiosity propped up for the basest edification of passers by. Herzog’s camera hangs close to Dengler, a constant companion which leaves his side only to show the captive’s situation more fully, as in a terrible, beautiful crane shot of Dengler roped and prone on the ground, begging to relieve himself with some dignity.

When Dengler refuses to sign a denunciation of American imperialism (“I love America. America gave me wings.”), he is transferred to a POW camp of bamboo and rattan, lodged deep in the jungle. There he finds Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies) along with several Vietnamese soldiers. Variously demented and demoralized by their captivity (unsure of how long they have been there, and unaware that a war has broken out in Vietnam), the prisoners are wary of Dengler’s as-yet-undaunted spirit and resist his immediate prescription of mutiny. Davies, excruciatingly thin, brings a riveting, repellent sheen of madness to his role, while Zahn does moving work as a broken man whose humble survival instincts prove stronger than his fear.

Eventually all of the prisoners acquiesce to Dengler, and a plan is hatched for a July 4 escape -- Independence Day (guten tag, synergy!). Bale brings Dengler’s bright-eyed, excitable manner to the role, which can translate as anything from arrogant arriviste to oddball affectation to slightly deranged; ultimately that spectrum works vigorously in the actor’s favor, who again whittles himself down to a thin stalk of will and instinct, burning brighter even as he disappears.

The planning of the siege under brutal conditions gives Herzog the opportunity to exercise some trademark perverse humor; the men struggle to remain human while shackled to each other, less interesting to their captors (who are frustrated and starving themselves, with only the diminutive “Jumbo” evincing any remaining traces of mercy or humanity) than the cur they have trained to walk on its hind legs. The escape is badly botched but Dieter and Duane slip out into the jungle, which proves to be an even more formidable prison. Here Herzog is on familiar ground, thrashing through the obscenely virile cloak of foliage with his men through punishing rains, mudslides and waterfalls, water spattering the lens for its trouble. Bale and Zahn are comrades in perpetual heartbreak, slipping into madness and hallucination from hunger, the oblivious, whizzing birds overhead unbearable beacons of relief, safety, home. Only one will be rescued, in a scene so desperate and painful, so joyous and true, that it exhausts the senses.

“God, why don’t you help us when we need you most?” Dengler asks, suffering even more for his weakened friend than himself, and making his first and last invocation to a higher power. But God does not save Dieter -- Americans do. Despite Herzog’s protestations of his lack of a sense of irony, Rescue Dawn’s coda seems to be at a cross-purposes with its content and context too curious to pass mention, and perhaps even accusation. What came first, one wonders, America or Dieter? The two are so closely allied here in their unbreakable will -- their dogged pursuit of the neo-watchword, “freedom” -- that the purity of the rapture ending the film, perhaps despite itself, calls up mixed emotions.

Having spent months fantasizing about food, Dieter is handed a Butterfinger, like a golden ticket, as he is hauled into the chopper. Written off by his squad, he is rescued by a stroke of luck, and honored as a hero on his return. “Was it your faith in God and country that kept you going?” Dieter is asked by the press. “You have to believe in something.” Showing signs of savvy than can only be classified as late American, Dengler’s answer is in his refusal to answer: “I believe I need a steak.”

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Comments (5)

You know what? FUCK OFF! Who would DARE include such a spoiler as "only one will be rescued" in a film review?! Shame on you! Is this announced in the opening credits? Because if it isn't then you owe me $16 and a goddamn apology. That's a ticket to the drafthouse and parking. You don't have to buy my dinner. I can't believe it. Honestly. I am going to appeal to rotten tomatoes to have your review status removed.
Piss off.

Given that the movie's advertised as based on the true story of one man (not multiple men), it's kinda shocking you didn't parse this out or find it so surprising.

Also you know that like a movie is more than the sum of its premise and ending, right? Right...?

You know what? Due to your statement about the movie being "advertised" as based on the true story of one man I did something a little stupid: I went into Rotten Tomatoes and read every single damned review. All 41 of them. Guess what - not one mentions what Ms Orange felt so compelled to mention in hers. And yes, I agree that a movie is more than the sum of its premise and ending, but I also didn't feel like knowing that Vader was Luke's father before I walked into the theatre. :|

Well the excitement of knowing who dies and who lives is gone, you may now focus on the qualities of cinematic language the film will bring forth.

Bresson, I only hope you are being facetious and that your syntax is meant for comic effect. It would pain me to think that there are actually people so f---ed in the head as to say what you said.

To Orange... Why? Were you just too lazy to notice you were spoiling? Did you think you were writing a watered-down version of a essay rather than a review? Or do you just delight in dulling others' enjoyment of a film?

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