Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rescue Dawn

I don't know why I never saw Rescue Dawn in theaters. I've always enjoyed war films, but for whatever reason I missed out. Then when I got into Herzog's work, I put off renting this because I was afraid of something so commercial from such a visionary and iconoclastic director. Yet, as it so often does, curiosity got the better of me and I popped in a copy to watch Herzog sell out to the masses on the commercial and critical successes of his recent documentaries.

Instead, what I got was a wholly original and quintessentially Herzogian war film that manages to subvert both the war and the prison/escape genre, ridding them of nearly all of the contrivances and banalities and instead forging a story of simple survival. You can tell you're in for a special ride from the very beginning, when Herzog plays that famous stock footage of Agent Orange being dropped on villages, but slows it down and focuses in such a way that it seems...different somehow. More menacing.

A fictive expansion of Herzog's incredible and subtly moving documentary Little Dieter Needed to Fly, Rescue Dawn is indeed a dramatized version of the trials of Dieter Dengler, the first man to escape from a Viet Cong POW camp. Yet in many ways, this dramatization often feels more real than the actual documentary. No wonder, since Herzog made both; he's always blurred the line between fact and fiction in both his narrative work and his documentaries, and his attempt to fill in the cracks in Dieter's story he left out in deference to his fellow prisoners paints an utterly convincing portrait of men broken by captivity and one man's ability to rally them.

However, Herzog never glorifies their violence, as he never does. This is simply a story of a remarkable man's will to live and his unflinching belief in his adopted country (Dieter was born in Germany but joined the U.S. Air Force for citizenship and for a chance to fly). When he arrives in the POW camp, an Vietnamese officer who speaks fluent English tells him that if he signs a piece of anti-American propaganda condemning the U.S. for bombing Indochina. Dieter responds that he never wanted to go to war but refuses to attack the country that "gave [him his] wings," even in an anonymous piece of rhetoric.

Dieter is then thrown in with the other prisoners and tortured in a variety of ways that stress the terrifying ordeals without ever glamorizing the acts like so many gory films today. In the camp, he meets the other 5 prisoners, 2 of whom are also American. Jeremy Davies plays "Eugene from Eugene, Oregon," a frightfully emaciated man who's gone mad in captivity. When Dieter immediately begins planning an escape, Gene warns that he'll tell the guards, because he's bought into their false promises of impending release. Steve Zahn stretches his chops as Duane, who, like Gene, has been broken, but in differing ways.

The escape plan Dieter cooks up is rather ingenious and all the more intriguing because we know it's true. It's daring and precisely calculated and works even when it doesn't go according to plan. However, in a darkly ironic (and purely Herzogian) twist, escape is the easy part. When Dieter first arrived in the camp, he mocked the flimsy bamboo cells and boasted he'd escape that night. "Don't you get it?" replied Duane, "The prison's the jungle." The jungle, a recurring setting in Herzog's work, indeed becomes a labyrinthine and unconquerable foe in the film's second half as Dieter and Duane attempt to flee to...wherever, really.

Another director may have exploited the horrors the pair face in their trek through the wilderness, but Herzog presents it with the same cold detachment of the rest of the film. Bale really proves himself in these passages, sporting a look of pure determination as he implements his survival skills to make fire, camouflage, and find food.

Some complain that the final scene, in which Dieter is triumphantly reintroduced to his station, as overly patriotic. We live in cynical times, indeed. First of all, this actually happened, so calling it a Hollywood-style "happy ending" is ridiculous; and second, Dieter's pragmatic non-speech deflates the bombast his superiors try to place on the situation. Sure, it's more upbeat than the endings of Herzog's other work, but I fail to see why he has to completely change the outcome of Dieter Dengler's life just to adhere to the auteur theory.

Ultimately, the only flaws I spotted were in the beginning, in the sequence where Dieter flies and ultimately crashes his plane. Herzog has never used special effects before, and it shows. Also, the bit where Dieter stops to drink from a puddle, you know that when the camera tilts back up with him that he'll be surrounded. However, these are minor flaws in an otherwise stellar and original work.

If this is what Herzog looks by 'going Hollywood,' then I can't help but be excited. All those who might worry that he sold out have nothing to fear; Rescue Dawn is pure Herzog, and it belongs on the short list of great films about a war which has already been documented in a number of timeless classics.

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