Ten years ago, Werner Herzog made a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, about a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down in Laos during the beginning stages of the Vietnam war. Now, Herzog returns with a fictionalized version of the very same story starring Christian Bale. It’s obvious why the director of Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Grizzly Man couldn’t stay away from this material: Dieter Dengler’s jungle ordeal is bursting with themes that have defined Herzog’s career, and it’s one hell of a story.
After his plane is downed during a secret bombing mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Dengler (Bale) is taken prisoner by Pathet Lao soldiers. His captors torture and abuse him in fiendishly innovative ways before marching him through the stunning landscape to a detainment camp. The other captives (played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) are resigned to their miserable bamboo prison, but Dengler, with German ingenuity, hatches plans for escape. The details of his imprisonment and subsequent flight through the dense Southeast Asian jungle form an encyclopedia of deprivation: hunger, madness, pain, and treacherous flora and fauna all around. And yet, in this version of the quintessential Herzogian battle of man versus nature, man triumphs.
Anybody who has seen Burden of Dreams knows that on extreme location shoots, Herzog doesn’t spare his actors, and stories about Christian Bale’s own ordeal have been making the rounds; scenes involving worms, leeches, and waterfalls appear all too real, with no stunt doubles or CGI in sight. Through it all, Bale’s performance is wonderfully emphatic, always holding on to a stubborn optimism as he turns from fresh-faced fighter pilot to the emaciated, scruffy wreck that emerges from the jungle, his face caked with blood and dirt. In the supporting roles, Steve Zahn takes a welcome break from his recent run of comedies, and Jeremy Davies does a repeat performance of the wigged-out freak from Soderbergh’s Solaris.
Many movies falsely promise what Rescue Dawn delivers: a thrilling, visceral adventure about what marketers and book flap writers like to call “the resilience of the human spirit.” To Herzog’s credit, this most American of his films hits all the marks of the genre splendidly without ever resorting to easy shock tactics or vilification of the so-called enemy. Rescue Dawn is that rarest of beasts, a powerful fiction based on fact that sacrifices neither storytelling nor the truth.
Rescue Dawn. Werner Herzog, 2006. ****
Rescue Dawn opens on July 4. Here’s the trailer: