In 1965, U.S. pilot Dieter Dengler went down over Laos while on a bombing run of the Ho Chi Minh trail. After getting captured by a bunch of guys with AKs, machetes, and ratty t-shirts, he went through the countless indignities of P.O.W.hood before deciding that enough was enough and devising an escape plan. But it turned out that the jungle, with its gnarly vines, sudden waterfalls, and unpredictable wildlife, was the real prison. Nevertheless, Dengler quite literally dragged himself to safety in a display of the survival instinct so remarkable that his friend Werner Herzog made two whole movies out of it, of which this is the second and more Christian Bale-y.
I bet Werner Herzog devotees — a class in which I suppose I must count myself — worried that the master had lost his edge when they heard that he'd deigned to use a special effect in this movie. But alas, Skyraiders are a little hard to come by these days, so it was either CGI or re-open the factory. Not that Herzog couldn't make a good film about re-opening a Skyraider factory.
It's not just animated planes that make Rescue Dawn one of the least Herzog-y Herzog films in the catalog. If not for the presence of a character named "Dieter Dengler", I'm not even sure I'd recognize this as one of Herzog's at all in less than forty minutes' runtime. Being surrounded by a natural environment that's hell-bent on killing you is one of the auteur's trademark themes — Bale's Dengler has it tougher than Kinski's Fitzcarraldo, and he doesn't even have to drag a riverboat over anything — but that's more or less the distinctiveness' limit.
Taken alone, Rescue Dawn is actually similar to any other prison break/survival story hybrid. Its surface looks even more polished than the approximate $10m budget usually buys, but, since it's Herzog, a reasonable amount of welcome textural irregularity remains. (Undoubtedly real larvae-eating, for instance.) But I don't think it's meant to be taken alone, considering that it works so much better as a companion piece to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Herzog's earlier Dengler-centric project. In that documentary, the filmmaker followed the pilot around as he recounted his flight from captivity and struggle toward civilization in the same locations they originally took place. (Now that's a Herzog endeavor.) The slogan of this film might as well have been, "Now here's the re-enactment." And, taken in that context, it's one of the more gripping re-enactments to come around in a long time. Why, it's like a whole other movie!
Also, an oddity: Christian Bale seems to be good at accents and isn't known for slacking off when it comes to prepping for a role — he lost almost as much weight for this picture as he did for The Machinist — but for some reason he didn't feel like replicating Dengler's German accent. Instead, he just phrases everything really deliberately and contraction-free. That's how Deutschmen roll, right?
- Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
- Julian Schnabel's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
- Béla Tarr's The Man from London
- Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood
- Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men
- Anton Corbijn's Control
- Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science
- Robinson Devor's Zoo
- Ang Lee's Lust, Caution
- Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others
- Gary Hustwit's Helvetica
- Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited
- Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding
- Jason Reitman's Juno
- Tamara Jenkins' The Savages
- David Fincher's Zodiac
- Matthew Ogens' Confessions of a Superhero
- David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises
- Greg Mottola's Superbad
- Amir Bar-Lev's My Kid Could Paint That
- Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
- Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis
- Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn
- Andrew Wagner's Starting Out in the Evening
- Anthony Hopkins' Slipstream
- Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth
- Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
- Kenneth Branagh's Sleuth
- Jake Kasdan's The TV Set
- David Silverman's The Simpsons Movie
- Frank Cappello's He Was a Quiet Man
- J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage