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Missing in action

History escapes Herzog in Rescue Dawn
By CHRIS FUJIWARA  |  July 10, 2007
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn | Written and Directed by Werner Herzog | with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies | MGM | 120 Minutes

In his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Werner Herzog told the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born man who became a US Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War. Shot down while flying a bombing mission over Laos, Dengler was captured and held in a jungle prison camp — from which, armed with arcane practical know-how and an indomitable survival instinct, he escaped. The documentary is striking not just because of the details of this ordeal but because of the personality of the protagonist, whom Herzog filmed in California. Admirable for his openness and for the precision and easy flow of his recollections, Dengler also remains, in his film, an enigma: part of himself is somewhere else, still inside the incommunicable area of his traumas.

Revisiting the tale with actors and scripted dialogue in his new Rescue Dawn, Herzog faces the immediate problem that it’s impossible to out-Dieter the articulate and attractive Dengler. Probably cast on the strength of his emaciated appearance in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist, Christian Bale makes Dengler a cheerful, guileless presence, no doubt the best possible fellow to have around if you’re stuck in the jungle. But Bale’s lack of ambiguity points to the biggest limitation of a film that makes the grade as an adventure yarn by ignoring the most disturbing implications of its story.

Dengler’s obsession with flying resulted from an American bombing raid he endured as a child during World War II. In Rescue Dawn, Herzog alludes to this background but shows no appreciation of its historical irony. Yet the unmistakable logic of Dengler’s story is the transformation of the victim into the aggressor. What the child fell in love with — at least consciously — may have been the beauty of the flying machines rather than the destruction they unleashed on his town. But in becoming the master of that beauty, he also becomes someone who uses the airplane for destruction, turning into the aggressor in a new war.

In Rescue Dawn, Dieter and his fellow prisoners (who include a cuddly-bear-like Steve Zahn and a skeletal and querulous Jeremy Davies) are unsure whether they’re in Laos or in North Vietnam. For Herzog, the question is irrelevant (as are all political and ideological issues related to the war), because answering it changes nothing about the existential outlines of the experience. The heroes’ mental map shows no national boundaries, only sources of water, potential dangers, mountains from which you might signal a search plane. Neither Herzog nor Dengler (as he’s portrayed in Rescue Dawn) suspects that history confronts them as a problem or that it determines and drives them. For them, history is just a dream lying somewhere in the vicinity of the dream that immediately concerns them: the dream of reality.

Some of the film’s most striking moments are the brief scenes of Dengler’s hallucinations during the later stages of his experience. The force of these scenes comes less from any inspiration or poetry in their realization (which, like the whole film, is deliberately matter-of-fact, even bland) than from your realization that hallucination is, for Herzog, the logical and inevitable form of this narrative. In driving the film to this point, he pushes it closer to what it needs to be if it’s going to be more than an exciting adventure of captivity and escape. Still, Rescue Dawn is largely that adventure. Despite the celebratory hokum that’s tacked on to the end (making it seem that the director was suddenly replaced by John Milius), the film is not only less ambiguous but also less stirring than Little Dieter Needs To Fly, which said most of what Herzog has to say on the subject.

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