Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
If someone told me that I’d be fighting back tears at the end of a summer movie wherein an American pilot bombing Laos would be rescued and receive a standing ovation from his 4,000 shipmates on a US aircraft carrier at the end, I wouldn’t believe you.
Unless you told me the film was directed by Werner Herzog, the crazy Kraut responsible for such cinematic singularities as Fitzcarraldo, My Best Fiend, and Grizzly Man. And that it was based on the events he covered in his incredible 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. And that Christian Bale—possibly the greatest actor of his generation—would be playing the lead.
And that Jeremy Davies plays a crazy guy.
Then I would definitely believe you.
Again, Rescue Dawn is the fictionalized version of the events described in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Outside of a bio on John McCain, chances are it’s one of the most compelling stories of human survival you’ve ever heard. Dieter Dengler was a German who emigrated to America at age 18, joined the Air Force and later the Navy and was finally admitted into the pilot training program. He went to Vietnam, was shot down over Laos, was captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, escaped, survived in the wild jungle far past the point any reasonable human being could be expected to…and was rescued.
And it’s all true. Dengler is a perfect Herzog subject in Little Dieter—wildly cheerful and charismatic in the face of ridiculous adversity, willing to put himself to the test and then some against the brutal, uncaring embrace of Mother Nature. He gives an unforgettable performance as himself in the documentary. And—not surprisingly—Christian Bale channels him with uncanny skill in Rescue Dawn. It’s a performance full of choices so strange that they could only come from studying a real life person who acted like that. Bale also deserves mucho credit for probably making this film possible in the first place. Bale’s star is on the rise in showbiz because of the Batman Begins franchise he’s become the lead in, and he’s used his clout to get interesting, difficult material that would never be made in a million years without a star like him attached made (see: The Machinist and especially the amazing Harsh Times).
A story this compelling is pretty tough to fuck up, and Herzog wisely gets out of the way and lets it do the talking. The writing and directing is very straight-forward. Nothing flashy, just depicting what happened in these true-life events with as much versimilitude and “realism” as you can expect an audience to stomach (Herzog mercifully skips on recreating the bamboo-under-the-fingernails torture Dengler describes in Little Dieter here). The best part of the movie (besides the tension-relieving, triumphant ending) is the slow-building POW camp sequence. Herzog lets you watch these guys live in that situation, make sense of it, try to make it bearable, and the unhurried pace of this crucial second act sequence is the best writing and directorial decision he could have possibly made with this material. Rescue Dawn is seen as Herzog’s “first Hollywood movie,” which probably isn’t technically true in any sense, but it sounds good. After the triumph of Rescue Dawn, he’ll likely get many more chances to go off and do something crazy (see: The Burden of Dreams).
This is a movie primarily about the limits of human suffering, and the actors’ skill in making you believe they’re suffering is of paramount importance in a film like this. As everyone expects, Bale—who’s lately been a man possessed with depicting suffering on film (again, see: Harsh Times, The Machinist, and even Batman Begins and The Prestige, in a weird way)—is rock solid. Steve Zahn acquits himself very well in his first dramatic role. He plays Duane, the guy who escapes from the camp with Bale, and who has a much tougher go of it. Zahn underplays the role very well, letting go of the comic tics he’s made a career on and depicting an inarticulate country boy thrust into extreme circumstances.
Perhaps best of all is Jeremy Davies, who turns in another Jeremy Davies Plays a Weirdo Hall of Fame performance. Davies plays Gene (“Gene from Eugene”), a guy who’s been in the POW camp much longer than Deiter and who has sort of lost his mind since being there. Davies physically transforms himself for the role, losing massive amounts of weight and channeling Charles Manson to an uncanny degree. It’s a showy performance, sure, but it’s an absolute pleasure to watch nonetheless.
Rescue Dawn is probably doomed to get lost in the shuffle of bloated Hollywood blockbusters, and that would be a shame. It’s an amazing story, full of amazing performances, and that’s not something to take for granted these days.