If Werner Herzog is famous for both chronicling men as they descend into obsession and also being a victim of that selfsame journey, then he’s found a beautiful match in Christian Bale, the most accomplished character actor of his generation and a man whose talents have been on display for so many years that most people just overlook him. Bale is a master of using his entire body as a performance tool, letting a thousand meanings play around in his eyes or face and doing whatever’s required for the part to shape his body around the role: He’s bounced from rail-thin to bulked-up far more times than is probably healthy, but the filmic results have been breathtaking. In Rescue Dawn, Herzog’s latest, Bale once again loses himself in the role, using his physical presence and deft skill with accents to re-create Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over the jungles of Laos during the Vietnam War and held in a prison camp there. Herzog, who previously detailed the story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, focuses so intently on Dieter’s emotional journey that the feature is drained of all artifice, becoming a thoroughly realistic and completely engrossing story about one man and his fierce determination to survive. Herzog’s film doesn’t feel like a narrative adaptation of a documentary, but instead carries all the weight and emotion of the actual events, as if Herzog got lost in a captivating gray area between making a movie, staging a re-enactment, and traveling back in time.
The film opens with old film of the 1965 bombing runs on Laos, set against Klaus Badelt’s spare and elegiac score. Herzog establishes the tone immediately, and it’s an important one: His focus here is solely on the lives and emotions of the men involved and not on rallying an audience to any particular point. When the action shifts to the U.S.S. Ranger, the carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin where Dengler is stationed, he maintains that political resilience for the greater good of the story. The Navy pilots aren’t portrayed as jingoistic heroes, but neither are they helpless cogs in a soulless military-industrial wheel; these are just guys going about their jobs, bitching about the downsides but doing it anyway because it’s what they’re good at and it’s what they want to do. It undoubtedly helps that Herzog is German, which affords him a better impartiality about American involvement in Vietnam, and also allows him to channel feelings with which most Americans are gratefully inexperienced, growing up in postwar reconstruction and aware of the firsthand impact of an invading army. Bale’s Dieter is the perfect hero for Herzog, a German-American who grew up in the Black Forest but moved to the States as an adult, got his citizenship, and pursued his dream of flying. His whole life, Dieter has been escaping, and he’s forever grateful to the country that “gave (him) wings,” as he puts it. Bale brings a cherubic grace to the early scenes of Dieter, round-faced and well-fed and wholly unaware of the trails that await him. Bale even nails the peculiar accent of someone who only picked up English later in life, his speech patterns warm and crisp and a little overdeveloped, like a kid who was home-schooled on Mars.
Dieter and his fellow pilots laugh and screw around, but soon enough they’re briefed and given a classified mission that puts them right into North Vietnamese airspace. It’s on this mission — Dieter’s first as a Naval aviator — that he takes enemy fire and crashes in Laos. Aside from the special effects shots of the planes in the air, Herzog relies on in-camera effects like the explosion of the debris and the scenery itself to sell the story, which it does in every beautiful detail. Shot on location in Thailand, Rescue Dawn quickly becomes the most realistic war film in a long time simply by virtue of Herzog’s refusal to dress up the situation any more than is needed. Dieter’s harried flight from the encroaching Viet Cong soldiers and his foraging for food and shelter that first night are quiet affairs, free of the thudding music or voice-over that might be used to sell the scenes in a more mainstream film. He’s eventually caught and tortured before being transported to a prison camp in the middle of the jungle.
At the camp, Dieter meets a handful of other prisoners, including fellow military pilot Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), who’s been there for 18 months, and Gene (Jeremy Davies), an Air America pilot who was kidnapped with his copilot two and a half years before. The story’s focus shifts from Dieter’s survival to his broader desire to escape the camp and take his fellow captives with him, and the remainder of the film deals with Dieter’s plans for escape as they struggle to survive another day of no food and no rescue in sight. Dieter’s unflagging optimism at first feels like a character quirk meant to delineate him from the more depressed inmates, but Bale never feels phony. Instead, his upbeat attitude and desire to escape are born of nothing more than a pure love for his country and an unwillingness to accept defeat or imprisonment. The camp scenes slowly chart Dieter’s physical erosion, as the months in captivity bring out his cheekbones and wear down his once-broad chest. Bale again puts his body through the paces, and coupled with the emotional weight he brings to Dieter, it’s a stirring performance. Zahn is eerily bony, too, but Davies is just plain emaciated, looking an awful lot like Charles Manson (whom he played in a TV movie a few years ago, actually). Gene’s time in the camp has weakened his grip on reality, but parts like this are a walk in the park for Davies, who gave a similarly mumbly and paranoia-tinged performance in Solaris. But it’s Zahn who does surprisingly good work here, breaking away from the comedic roles he built his name on in favor of a sad, quiet part as a man ground down to breaking by his captors. His humor still finds its way into several scenes, though, enhancing the strange camaraderie forged by the men in the camp. However, it’s Bale’s fantastic work that anchors the story, giving it heart and heft and turning it from a story about the war into a story about the men.
That’s ultimately Herzog’s greatest success with Rescue Dawn: By making a movie about a man, he transcends any political mudslinging or attempts at heavy-handed allegory and instead crafts a story that’s moving in its simplicity. It isn’t giving too much away to say that there are moments of genuine pain and anguish here, but also those of joy and sweet reunion, as Herzog discreetly builds to an uplifting powerhouse of a finale. Dieter’s adventure is all the more remarkable for being true, but that’s almost beside the point: For Herzog, it’s all about the look in Dieter’s eyes as he watches the horizon, ears open for the sound of helicopters, unable to stop hoping.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Wings of Desire
Film | July 6, 2007 | Comments ()