D: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog comes to Hollywood with his latest film, Rescue Dawn, although, characteristically, the unending quest for the "voodoo of location" sends him off to Thailand to film the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot who crashes into the jungles of Laos during Vietnam. He previously filmed this story as a documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), with the real Dieter (now deceased) reenacting his own capture by Viet Cong--to such extremes that some criticized Herzog for pushing his interview subject past the boundary of good taste. Nevertheless, that film is now regarded as one of Herzog's great documentaries, alongside My Best Fiend (1999) and the more recent Grizzly Man (2005). Of course, Herzog has always despised the strict definitions of "documentary," and has always seen his pictures as a form of storytelling which needn't follow any particular blueprint. That helps explain why his retelling of Dieter Dengler's story in Rescue Dawn is slightly fictionalized, essentially telling two narratives: one for the wide audience who has never heard of this P.O.W., and another for those Herzog fans who are familiar with the previous film. The German Dengler now becomes a German-American with no discernable accent (played by English actor Bale serving up a respectable, if somewhat plastic, American accent). The way he and his fellow P.O.W.s stage their escape has been altered to provide a bit of surprise in that parallel narrative, as well as the tragic fate of one of the key characters, and there are also winks here and there, such as Bale actually envoking the title of the Herzog doc. As a Hollywood film, it is astonishingly brutal and harrowing. There may be a happy ending, but it's compromised by our knowledge of the loss and struggle that's come before.
It is recognizably a Herzog film, from the breathtaking visuals, to the obsession over details (we learn, for example, how to break out of handcuffs, and how to start a fire in the jungle), and, naturally, the central plight of a driven individual who battles a harsh and unforgiving wilderness. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its overexposed cinematography, which somehow manages to look exactly like Vietnam War documentary footage from the 1960's. Character actors Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies so completely embody their roles as fellow American prisoners, psychologically devastated by a longer stay in the jungle prison, that they are never less than convincing, somewhat shaming Bale's less natural, overcalculated performance. Despite Bale's weaknesses, and a somewhat rushed opening and an abrupt resolution, Rescue Dawn should hopefully silence those critics who think Herzog should stick to documentaries (I'm looking at you, Film Comment). It's a vital piece of filmmaking.