German director Werner Herzog has made a career of paying ambiguous tribute to madmen. The most famous example is probably 1972's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which Klaus Kinski plays a Spanish conquistador who unravels as he leads his men through the jungles of Brazil in search of El Dorado. The most familiar to the average American filmgoer is probably Grizzly Man, Herzog's 2005 art-house documentary hit about Timothy Treadwell, a crazed would-be environmentalist who tracked grizzly bears in Alaska before finally succumbing to one.
Rescue Dawn, Herzog's first American narrative feature, follows in the same vein. The protagonist this time is Navy pilot and Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale), whose story Herzog previously told in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. A German immigrant turned American fighter pilot, Dengler is shot down during a secret bombing mission in Laos. Herzog wastes little time getting into his story — one of capture, resistance, escape, and survival.
After suffering numerous punishments and humiliations (including being dragged through the middle of a village by a steer and being stuffed into a well of water barely larger than the circumference of his body) and refusing to sign a document accusing America of misconduct, Dengler is deposited in a prison camp alongside captives who have been locked up as long as three years, among them a couple of Americans played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. (Bale is a thrilling, intense actor, but one wonders if he could pull off a romantic comedy.)
Immediately seizing the role of alpha male, Dengler devises a scheme to escape, leading his mostly reluctant charges along with him. Along the way, Rescue Dawn becomes something like Rambo as art movie: There's no cheap revenge plotline and no cartoon action, but the film clings tightly to the partial viewpoint of its captured protagonist and posits jungle survivalism as a triumph of Western resolve and ingenuity.
As a genre procedural, Rescue Dawn is exciting and convincing, but the message-making is difficult to read. The Laotian captors are made to be highly exotic, which could privilege the perspective of Dieter and his mates but might also pander to the cultural prejudices of the audience. And the film ends on a tone of uplifting, celebratory camaraderie that could be a military recruitment tool, despite the horrors Dieter has lived through. Ultimately, though, you sense that Herzog's perspective is mostly apolitical: that Rescue Dawn is just another of his gripping, morally ambiguous tales of man combating nature.
Opening Friday, July 27th