Aug 4, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn is the first foray into Hollywood of the great German director Werner Herzog, yet it still manages to be a Werner Herzog film. That is, a lyrical foray into extremity and madness. It tells the story of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who escaped a Laotian prison camp and survived in the jungle before being rescued by the US Army. Herzog had already made a documentary about him called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which according to many sources is even better than this movie. I have not seen it, but I have seen Rescue Dawn and I strongly recommend it.
There is a wonderful profile of Herzog and the making of this film in this recent article in the New Yorker. Basically, the story of "Rescue Dawn: The Movie" is the story of the struggle between the desires of an artist filmmaker and those of the moneymen. Because this is the formidably crazy Werner Herzog, it turns out that the artist won the battle with enormous wile, stubborness and chutzpah (read the article, it is a hoot). Rescue Dawn is not an action movie, it is not a war movie. It is a movie about man in extremis, which is one of Herzog's favorite themes. What distinguishes this film from any other Rambo-like jungle adventure (which is probably what the producers were hoping for) is precisely the sensibility of the director. Nothing feels staged. Actually, that is not true. The first minutes of the film, which happen in a US Navy carrier, safely indoors, feel clunky and mechanical. The dialogue sounds stiff, the lighting looks cheap, one braces for the worst. But once Dengler's plane crashes in the jungle, Herzog feels right at home. He is in his element. The thicker the foliage, the more forbidding the jungle landscape; the more glorious, fluid, powerful and lyrical the images.
There is enormous emotional power in this film and it comes not only from Herzog's subtle, un-Hollywood conception of the hero, but also mainly from Christian Bale's towering performance. For Dieter Dengler is not your typical gung-ho, cocky American hero. He is some sort of eccentric, German-born kid who is good humored and good natured and has, besides a luminous smile and a winning, cocky charm, endless reserves of inventiveness and willpower. He is not a machine. I have never seen a hero like this in a Hollywood movie. About Dengler, Herzog has said: “All that I like about America was somehow embodied in Dieter: self-reliance and courage and loyalty and optimism, a strange kind of directness and joy in life.” And this is exactly what Bale conveys with incredible force and total abandon. It is a fresh and original performance that never falls back on clichés. I fear that its magnificence may be attributed to or confused with the fact that he lost 55 pounds for this film. But it is his characterization and the authenticity of feeling that merit him the awards. If he is not nominated for an Oscar, it will be a travesty.
In the middle of the jungle, and under apparently quite insane production circumstances, Herzog somehow elicits fantastic performances of the entire cast. Steve Zahn is excellent as Dengler's friend and fellow escapee. It's the first time I see him in a non-goofy role and he is tender and haunting to the core. Jeremy Davies, (in my book, the male version of Jennifer Jason Leigh, and this is never a good thing) turns out his usual unhinged, mannered shtick as a crazed prisoner. He wins the weight contest by a mile, looking worse than an Auschwitz survivor, but somehow, even though he's good, he is shticky. It's not about that.
The movie is slightly bizarre for American standards. The rhythm is off, there are no predictable turning points and formulas, and only a few torture thrills, but the story is gripping and it has deep expanses of pure feeling. The cinematography, by Herzog's longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who must be a professional masochist, is stunning, with gorgeous, floating camera swoops and fantastic handheld shots that never distract. Some scenes in the prison camp seem right out of Goya's war paintings. Herzog shoots the amazing Thai jungle locations as landscapes of the mind. He also puts the actors through a grinder. They eat worms and snakes and pull leeches off their bare skins.
There is by now a famous scene between Zahn and Bale where the prisoners fantasize the contents of their fridges at home. It reminded me of Chaplin's food hallucinations in The Gold Rush, very funny and moving at the same time. There is true tenderness between the two escapees. In the end it is clear that the film is much more about the edge of madness, good and bad, about human folly, and like all survival stories, about existence, than it is about a hero's exploits.
I will not spoil anything for you if I tell you there is a happy ending after the rescue that seems pegged on to humor somebody in a focus group. Thanks to the utter integrity of Bale's acting and to Herzog's discreet subversiveness, the scene works at a different level. It is worth the price of admission just to watch the reaction in Dengler's face as he is given a hero's return. The overwhelming confusion, the pain, the joy, the dizziness is all there; for a moment he seems like he is looking for himself. Then as he salutes, composing himself, his eyes fill up with tears and he strains to contain his emotion. Not one to fall for easy patriotic and religious bromides, all he says is he wants a steak. And when he is asked to explain how he survived, he replies simply, like a Buddhist sage: You empty what is full and you fill what is empty.
And this is why I love Werner Herzog.

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