Herzog's Vietnam Escape Story Blisters the Screen

Maui Time | July 1, 2007
Werner Herzog's sensational narrative version of the story he told in his acclaimed 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about former real-life Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, is a wartime escape movie to top all others. Set in a thick Laotian jungle, Dieter (Christian Bale) becomes the only American to ever break out of a POW camp during the Vietnamese War thanks to his naive indomitable spirit and mental fortitude. Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan) gives a riveting performance as one of Dieter's emaciated fellow prisoners, but it's Steve Zahn that surprises with what is arguably his first real acting job, and man is he great. Herzog is back with a vengeance, and this movie is incredible.

Dieter Dengler and Werner Herzog were close friends before Dengler's death in 2001 from Lou Gerhig's disease, and you can sense the filmmaker's reverence for his fellow German subject throughout his roughly 38th feature film. Germany's most admired and prolific living director has finally shed the shadow of his tumultuous premier actor Klaus Kinski, and the accomplishment is marked with a typically intense trial by fire. In Rescue Dawn, the writer/director returns to the same kind of harsh jungle conditions where his most famous film Fitzcarraldo (1982) made him a household name. Herzog's larger-than-life persona is inextricably bound up in his obsessive and chaotic approach to filmmaking as a means of existential expression yet it's only recently, with his unique documentary Grizzly Man, that he began to reestablish his artistic voice from a safe distance.

By virtue of having made an interview film about the man that he now presents with full-blooded literary license in the guise of Christian Bale's canny interpretation, Herzog creates a script that is perfectly transparent. There's a blunt directness in the storytelling that defies subtext. It simply is exactly what it is; an astounding tale of survival.

Dengler's sense of importance about flying his first top-secret Naval mission over Laos in 1965 comes through during a group hug with his fellow pilots on the aircraft carrier that is their temporary home. When Dengler is abruptly shot down and forced to crash-land his fragile airplane, Herzog films the scene with a raw immediacy that is cinematic in distinctly personal terms. He shoots the scene not as a director like Scorsese would, but rather with a documentarian eye for the circumstance and atmosphere. There is no separating the event from the character we watch with total empathy. The suddenly grounded pilot pulls himself from the wreckage and runs through the unfamiliar terrain in a mad dash for survival. However, Dengler's autonomy lasts only a couple of days before Pathet Lao soldiers catch him like a cornered mouse and eventually place him in a North Vietnamese-run POW camp. The troops are quick to torture Dengler in a series of violent methods that he faces with an impertinent patience that reveals the onion layers of his focused personality that works with clockwork precision toward a strategy that will enable him to eventually escape. When a Laotian soldier fires a rifle near Dengler, he screams at his captor with a fury and indignity that matches their cruelty. Here is a man that will not be cowed.

Dengler proves his allegiance to the US, in spite of his German heritage, when he is offered freedom after being relentlessly punished if he will sign a document saying that he condemns American action in Vietnam. Dengler adamantly refuses on the basis that America "gave him wings," and he is returned to his captive hell. The scene reveals the duplicity of his captors, and of all captors in general, who would have returned him to confinement regardless of his reply.

Like all great escape movies (ex. Bresson's A Man Escaped -- 1955) Rescue Dawn examines the inner logic and methodical small work that goes into planning and executing a breakout from a seemingly impossible situation. But there is so much more at work in Herzog's film that explores the effects of war on prisoners forced to sleep handcuffed cross-armed together when they aren't being constantly reminded of the cheapness of their lives by cruel and insane guards. Dengler's fellow captives Duane (Steve Zahn) and "Gene from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies) are already broken spirits when he arrives, and over the course of his stay Dengler is only somewhat able to invigorate a survival instinct in them that keeps him focused on freedom. Duane and Dengler form an exceptional bond that informs a shocking third act where freedom itselfbecomes a lurking demon of death.

I would recommend watching Little Dieter Needs to Fly after Rescue Dawn in order to understand more about this fascinating tale of endurance. The corollary films bear witness to the life-altering effects of wartime captivity from a deeply personal perspective that is unprecedented if only for the reason that Dieter Dengler escaped to talk about it.

Rated PG-13, 125 mins. (A)

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