Category: Werner Herzog / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 100 of 100
Okay, maybe this is a bit of a cheat – I’ve already reviewed ‘Rescue Dawn’ on The Agitation of the Mind; back in November 2007, during the blog’s first month of existence – but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed the right film to end the Operation 101010 project on.
The first title I reviewed for Operation 101010, on 20 January 2010, was Werner Herzog’s astounding documentary ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’. ‘Rescue Dawn’ is his feature film exposition of the same story. The same narrative perameters apply: German-American Dieter Dengler is driven to become a pilot. He enlists, trains and is sent to Vietnam. He is shot down over Laos, captured, endures inhumane conditions and eventually escapes.
My original piece on ‘Rescue Dawn’ was a mere 240 words, by far the shortest review I’ve posted on the blog. When I wrote it, I felt that Tim’s review on Antagony & Ecstasy said all that needed to be said; his article certainly reflected my feelings on the film. I concluded: “There’s much to admire … And yet … this is Herzog in the jungle. This should be ‘Aguirre’ with planes, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ goes ’Nam. What it is, ultimately, is a dichotomy. It’s simultaneously one of the best things I’ve seen in a multiplex this year and arguably the most ordinary thing in Herzog’s filmography.”
So now, rounding out a bizarre triple-bill that started with ‘Some Like it Hot’ and ‘Seven’, I find myself concluding today’s movie marathon with my first viewing of ‘Rescue Dawn’ since November 2007. And I still maintain that it’s an exceptionally well-made film, with a sterling performance from Christian Bale as Dengler (who starved himself to the kind of skeletal frame he exhibited in ‘The Machinist’) and an excellent supporting turn from Steve Zahn (as Duane, Dengler’s closest friend in captivity). To see Zahn – who usually does smug, wiseass, or smug wiseass – delve into a hitherto unexplored capacity as an actor is a revelatory. Jeremy Davies gives his usual wild-eyed, flapping hands, strangulated syntax Jeremy Davies performance, but I find him less annoying in ‘Rescue Dawn’ than most of his other films.
Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography, while never quite reaching the mystic/poetic visuals of ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’ or ‘Fitzcarraldo’, is never less than evocative. Herzog’s script is focused and direct: ten minutes in, Dengler’s plane is down; less than twenty minutes in, he’s captured; by the half hour mark he’s at a PoW camp and starting to think about escaping. Herzog captures the banal, routines and unpredictable outbursts of violence from the guards that characterize life in the prison camp. He charts the physical depletion of the captives and their desperation in eating grubs and suffering dysentery. He has an ear for their camaraderie and banter, too, but without descending into cliché or jingoism.
(Parenthetically, the ending – which I did find hopelessly jingoistic first time round – I have since learned is depicted pretty much as it happened. So fair dues.)
The escape comes about two thirds of the way into the movie, two groups of prisoners striking out in different directions. The rest of the film follows Dengler and Duane as they trek arduously through the jungle, trying to evade Laotian troops while attracting the attention of the occasional US helicopter or search plane.
‘Rescue Dawn’ is, by turns, exciting, grueling, suspenseful and (finally) cathartic. From most contemporary directors, this would be top-of-their-game stuff – possibly a masterpiece. From Herzog, it’s curiously pedestrian, but it proves that (a) even cinema’s premier maverick can turn in a conventional, mainstream work and (b) Herzog should always be a freakin’ maverick.