In 1997, Werner Herzog made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary about German-born American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler who, in the early days of the Vietnam War, was captured and held in a Laotian POW camp from which he staged a daring escape before being rescued by Navy search teams. What emerges through Dengler's first-hand accounts is a portrait of a lucid and courageous survivor. Rescue Dawn is a companion piece to Little Dieter (rather than the other way around); on the level of character study, Herzog manages nothing as affecting in the fictionalized feature version of Dengler's story as the real-life documentary version of it.
This isn't to say Rescue Dawn isn't good. It's often great, and in all the ways that Herzog's cinema can be great. As in Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (his undisputed masterpieces) Herzog plunges himself (and the rest of us) once again into the jungle, in all its deceptive beauty. The jungle is that twilight zone, the border between life and death that is the domain of Herzog's cinema, and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (who also shot Little Dieter) ably carries the torch that his predecessor Thomas Mauch held aloft so heroically in those aforementioned Conradian tales of men endeavoring to overcome nature (and failing). Herzog lives in awe and terror of the natural world (he goes into this at length in Grizzly Man), and nowhere is that paradox more palpable than in Rescue Dawn, in which the jungle can be jaw-droppingly gorgeous one moment, and a stultifying prison the next.
The storyline more or less follows the playbook Dengler set down in Little Dieter. Christian Bale, delivering the year's most prodigious lead performance, plays Dengler, shot down over Laos, and captured by a gang of scary-as-shit guerilla soldiers. After ceaseless torture, Dengler finds himself frog-marched to, and locked inside, a jungle-ringed prison camp. He meets fellow inmates Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), both Americans and in startling states of emaciation and disease. Truly, the year's body-disfiguration award must go to Davies, whose skeletal frame gives him the appearance of a Holocaust victim. Deprived and dysentery-ridden, Gene and Duane's minds (as much as their bodies) have turned fragile. Duane, the quiet one, has the look of a hunted animal, while Gene is the more timorous and talkative, dead-set against upsetting the power balance vis-à-vis the guards for fear of getting killed. What's foremost in Dengler's mind, though, is escape -- as soon as humanly possible -- and he devises a plan. But a psychological logjam develops between Dengler and Gene, who remains convinced their best shot at living is to wait out the war. When they learn their deaths are imminent, however, Dengler and company spring into action.
Most striking about Rescue Dawn's scenes is their hallucinatory quality, a Herzog trademark. The conversations aren't so much articulated as murmured, lost in the tropical haze and the dank spaces, the words buzzing about like mosquitoes. They're figments of imagined conversations. The scenes, often unfolding in roving wide shots, are overlaid with terror and oppression, and, upon escape, the walls of jungle foliage feel even more implacable than the prison's. Sometimes, as when Dengler demonstrates how to pick handcuffs with a nail, we sense the grasping for hope, before hope vanishes in the heavy air.
This is not a Hollywood movie, despite the picture's MGM label. Rather, it's stripped of the "triumph-of-the-spirit" imperatives, those more optimistic notes (à la The Shawshank Redemption) that audiences have come to rely on to lift and propel such a narrative. Herzog, instead, is concerned -- no, obsessed -- with the minutiae of suffering, the torpor of prison life, the hopelessness of hope itself. But, frankly, a little of that goes a long way, and, where the narrative should speed itself up, and know what it wants, Rescue Dawn slows to a trudge, as lost in the jungle as Dengler himself.
As the movie concludes, we see jubilation, sense relief, but Dengler's story is about so much more. Is Rescue Dawn about comradeship, and perseverance in the face of doom? The press notes would suggest so. But for that to work, we need to feel connected to its characters, and, more importantly, the characters to each other. That's difficult to do when Duane is little more than a man-child that Dengler must to tend to, and Gene just a venal wretch with nothing more to distinguish, let alone humanize him. Indeed, we feel nothing for Duane or Gene, who are mere puppets manipulated across Rescue Dawn's obstacle course. As for Bale (now the unofficial king of enduring torture for the sake of performance) we admire him, though we feel distanced from the character he portrays, simply because Herzog provides so little in that department for us to work with. Dengler, the man, was more, much more. We have Little Dieter to prove it.