For the first half of Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn," the fictionalized movie based on his documentary 1997 "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," I wasn't sure if Herzog had tamed the commercial feature or if it had tamed him. By the end, I felt it was the most harrowingly realistic and unsentimentalized P.O.W. film I'd ever seen.
The story is "inspired by" Dieter Dengler, an American Navy pilot (born in Germany) whose plane crashed in 1965 in Laos, where there wasn't supposed to be any bombing and before there was a "War in Vietnam." U.S. "military advisors" were there, supporting the South Vietnamese, but as far as most Americans were concerned, "war" hadn't broken out. Dengler survived the crash, was captured by Laotians, and held in what he and his fellow captives believed to be a Viet Cong camp. By the time Dengler arrived, some of the handful of Americans and Vietnamese interred there had been detained for more than two years already.
The bombing of Laos was considered "black ops" -- top secret -- so the hopes of rescue were slim to nonexistent, despite the certainty of one of the delusional American prisoners (Eugene, played by an even-more-skeletal-than-usual Jeremy Davies) that war would never come, that secret peace talks would prevail, and that a real war would never happen.
"Rescue Dawn" follows the generic conventions you would expect in a P.O.W. and prison-escape movie, but that's the story, isn't it? The reason I was skeptical at first was because the film seemed to be skimming over the horrors of torture and abuse the prisoners suffered. Dieter (a splendid Christian Bale) is suspended upside-down with a tree branch and what appears to be an insect nest (ants? caterpillars?) tied to his chest -- and yet no crawlers emerge from it to swarm over his body, which seems to be the whole point of this atrocious procedure. (I'm still wondering if this is a final print -- perhaps the creatures are yet to be added digitally.) Several times, men talk of defecating in their pants, yet there are no visible moisture stains. Why gloss over these details?
Two things, I think, make the movie work: 1) the detailed performances by lead actors Bale, Davies and Steve Zahn (as Duane, physically the weakest of the detainees -- or, if you prefer, "enemy combatants"); and 2) the fact that Herzog stays, closely and intently, with Dieter for the entire movie. There's no relief from life in the jungle prison camp. As one character says, "The jungle is the prison"; we know only what these guys know.
As an ultra-priviledged white, middle-class American just barely too young to have been eligible for the draft during the Vietnam era (I entered college in 1975), and who has never served in the military, I can never know what Dengler and many other P.O.W.s went through; I can only imagine through movies like this one. Like most people I know, I have the feeling I wouldn't have lasted a day. What I found most extraordinary about this movie, and Bale's performance, is the burning light in Dieter's eyes -- a kind of relish for living (and flying), and rapid-fire appraisal and acceptance of whatever befalls him. He's able to incorporate any turn of events in an instant, and then make his next move. He gets angry, he gets discouraged, he gets hungry, but he never gets depressed. I don't know quite how else to describe it, but his appetite for life is such that he seems ready to find an opportunity for fun in any given moment. If anyone can survive dire and hopeless situations like these, it's people like Dieter.
"Rescue Dawn" begins with actual helicopter footage of bombing raids over the jungles of Indochina. The slow-mo effect is (as you would expect from Herzog) mesmerizingly beautiful and horrific at the same time, in a way that recalls his amazing aerial images of the burning Kuwaiti oil wells in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War in "Lessons of Darkness" -- in which Herzog envisioned the hellish scarring of the earth as an atrocity committed against the planet itself.
Nobody will be surprised to learn that Herzog, whose passionate sympathies are unequivocally with the imprisoned men here, refuses to let Dieter's story be opportunistically exploited for jingoistic propaganda. When a man with a microphone prompts the rescued Dieter to say that his love of god and country are what saw him through his ordeal, he replies: "I'd love a steak." God bless him.
P.S. In case I didn't make it clear enough, a quote from the description in the Toronto catalog by Noah Cowan, which I just read:
The clarity [of the film's approach] is a blessing. It allows a ruminative viewer to quickly intuit Herzog's motives for making the film at this historical moment -- though it's not that tough to do the math. After all, Dengler is captured during a "secret war" waged to extract America from a quagmire abroad. He encounters brutal hostility from the Laotion guards and villagers he encounters. And he is tortured, contrary to the Geneva Convention. Sound familiar?