Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog
There's something so uncharacteristically...American about the surface of Werner Herzog's latest film, Rescue Dawn; when the bad guys show up near the end of its first act, for example, "bad guy music" plays on the soundtrack, a cheap bit of shorthand for a director who, hitherto, has been known as a cinematic iconoclast. Well, let's face it I guess, Rescue Dawn is a genre picture—and as such, it's a rousing yarn—the latest entry in the hit or miss POW genre and, with the dependable Herzog at the helm, it holds its own. Sporting the familiar—naturally, as Herzog already made this movie once before—Herzogian premise of an arrogant madman against the natural elements and indigenous savages, Rescue Dawn is cynically realistic on the edges while retaining the genre's romantic core; what saves the film from devolving into spurious heroics is that Herzog's romanticism is saved for the protagonist, Deiter Dengler (Christian Bale) qua individual and not in his capacity as American soldier. In that regard, Rescue Dawn, to an extent, is only deceptively American.
As the opening titles tell us, it's 1965 and Laos is being furtively blown to smithereens, as surreptitiously as decimation by conflagration can be, anyway, while Americans at home believe the war in South Asia is no big whoop-de-doo. (OK, if you say so.) Dengler, a German expat, is a pilot in the U.S. Air Force and not two missiles off into his first bombing mission when his plane is downed by Laotian/Vietcong militants on the ground. He manages to evade capture for a night, but eventually he's surrounded by soldiers—some outfitted in harried uniforms, others in American t-shirts and blue jeans—and taken prisoner. He's paraded around aimlessly and alternately tortured—a giant wasp on a string is swung over his face while he's pinned to the ground—and simply maltreated—they make him shit his pants, which really irks him, more than anything else. He hardly even seems to notice the aforementioned wasp.
While Dengler's a wandering prisoner in the jungle, there's a brief scene that begins with a shot of swimming fish, followed by a bit of cryptic poetry recited by Dengler; coupled with the fade out, fade in episodic structure that defines the bulk of the film, Rescue Dawn feels like Malick but, with all the jungle torture n' chase, it's by way of Gibson. Deiter is finally brought to a prison camp, a small, shanty outpost in the middle of the wild where a few Asians, traitorously having worked for American radio, and two Americans are being held captive, and have been held for anywhere from eighteen to thirty months. They're as hirsute, mangy and rawboned as men can get, fed on a diet of white rice browned by their filthy fingers. Deiter, not one to sit around going crazy or feeling sorry for himself, quickly starts plotting an escape, and slightly raising morale by picking the locks of the handcuffs that uncomfortably confine them at night.
Bale's Deiter is an unflappable optimist, and in a cynical world he seems to have a few screws loose: his grin never fades, not while being paraded through the Laotian villages as a tied-up prisoner or even while a prison guard holds a semi-automatic to his forehead. But his optimism is at least founded in a sense of realism—he's more Scowcroft than Bush, Jr.—unlike that of his fellow prisoner, Eugene "from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies), who's been so broken-down (and appallingly emaciated) by his imprisonment that his optimism is disingenuous and motivated purely by fear. Played by Davies in a jittery and wildly stylized performance, looking as though he wandered, in character, off the set of Helter Skelter, he pathetically voices his certainty that the war will soon be over and they will soon be released, even as the despondent madness in his eyes betrays that he knows his own death to be far more likely.
While Herzog does indulge himself and the audience in the pleasures of the genre's tropes, he's careful to avoid many of the POW drama's hollow clichés. Dengler may talk of his "girl back home", as any American prisoner in a Hollywood film is obligated to do, but he's not under any romantic pretenses that she'll be waiting for him when he returns; he understands, matter-of-factly, that she might very well not be. (Deiter's motivation to live comes across as simply undiluted, animalistic survival instinct.) The guards aren't well-off or motivated by nationalist pride like a vile Nazi from Stalag 17; they're portrayed as prisoners, too, starving to death and dreaming of going home just like their prisoners, displacing their growing frustration as increasingly severe cruelty. Deiter plans the escape for the Fourth of July—hazzah!—but in the end they have to reschedule. The escape itself features no rousing unification of a band of brothers; it's far from a heroically cooperative escape, as in the mostly statically dull The Great Escape, as the group is reduced to just a band of mentally shattered, self-interested individuals—it is, after all, based on a true story and therefore prominently features the despicable features of human nature—who only succeed because the guards are half-starved and poorly trained.
Except, of course, Dengler, who's selfless enough to ensure that everybody gets out, even the guy who never speaks. (I anticipated that he'd ultimately have his big scene(s), throwing a water fountain through a window or something, but Herzog, once again flaunting convention, seems to forget that the guy's even there.) The last third of the film is set in the jungle, as Dengler and Duane (Steve Zahn, shedding the Crispin Glover imitation that has defined most of his career and delivering the film's most revelatory performance) try to make it to American-friendly Thailand, or at least attract the attention of the occasional choppers passing overhead, helicopters that ultimately take on the symbolic heft of metaphorical manifestations of God—silent to his yelps for help (Dengler is seen praying more than once), even maliciously intent to harm him as at one point they, mistaking him for Vietcong, start shooting at him, much as God, throughout the entire film, has seemed committed to killing Deiter.
But for all of his authentic spark, Herzog certainly isn't above indulging in the genre's banalities; floating in a river, Dengler and Duane nearly go over a waterfall (whooooooooa!), and there's even a later scene featuring "LEEEEECHES!", although it's followed by a pretty graphic leech-removal scene, of the sort you don't often see. Bale, no longer able to impress audiences by simply losing tremendous amounts of weight, goes the distance in Rescue Dawn, not only by letting leeches dig into his skeletal physique, but by battling a snake and then feasting on its raw flesh, as well as gleefully ingesting a bowl of live maggots.
Deiter's effective individualism can't help but smell of ugly patriotism and a celebration of mythical Americanism, but Herzog is careful not to allow his film to devolve into the jingoistic, as it's a time when making heroic war movies is nothing short of irresponsible. (Not to denigrate the troops here but, in films, individuals function as symbols.) Deiter loves America not because they're a fair and just nation of democratic ideals, but because, as he says, "America gave me wings." Dengler was born in Germany, where he bore witness to a vicious American bombing raid during WWII that madly inspired an overwhelming need to become a pilot. "Little Deiter," Denger says of himself while relaying his backstory, in a humorous nod to Herzog's previous documentary version of the same story, "he needed to fly." ("You're a funny guy, Deiter," says Duane, "a guy tries to kill you and you want his job.") There's something hubristic about Deiter, something that makes you think he could, say, muster the audacity to believe that he could live amongst grizzly bears, if he wanted to.
Ultimately rescued, Deiter gets his standing ovation from his fellow soldiers, but Herzog, as much as he can, avoids any explicit flag-waving. In fact, somewhat comically, Dengler spends the end of the film trying to escape from the CIA, who wants him debriefed extensively, as though they're as reprehensibly monstrous as the Vietcong, only in black suits. (Herzog is able to sneak in some criticism of American missteps; in addition to the CIA knocks, for instance, there's overheard talk, in the Laotian prison camp, that the villagers' crops won't grow, a presumable result of the vicious Agent Orange.)
At the end, Dengler's asked how he made it through. Was it his faith in God or country? What did he believe in? "I believe I need a steak," he answers, rejecting both, before spouting some garbled nonsensical words of advice that simply make him seem like one of those rambling foreigners that Americans like to laugh at. Indeed, Herzog seems to want to make you forget that Dengler is an American at all; even Bale's German accent, which comes and goes, gets increasingly more pronounced as the film continues. Herzog is attracted to Dengler because he's a fascinating character, not because he's an American hero, and he carefully makes that distinction clear. I mean, Dengler's not exactly easy to identify with, and thus isn't inspiring in a copycat sort of way; his resolve isn't deterred for a moment through the film—something just ain't quite right with this guy. He's impressive, really something all right...something to admire and enjoy with voyeuristic fascination from the safe and comfortable distance of the theater.