"Little Dieter Needs to Fly is not a great Werner Herzog film, but because it's a good Werner Herzog film, it's of greater interest than almost anything else out there at the moment."
So began my review of the 1998 documentary that has now been given dramatic form in Rescue Dawn, and my sentiments regarding the new film are much the same: Though not a Herzog masterpiece, the latest from this intrepid German director outdistances most of the current competition by offering a handful of unusual fascinations—not least that it is essentially an American genre movie, as well as Herzog's most confident and noteworthy foray into dramatic filmmaking in many years.
From a logical standpoint, you could say that Rescue Dawn has two potential audiences. One is comprised of moviegoers eager for a modestly budgeted war movie that tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American Navy pilot who's shot down over Laos in the Vietnam War and survives a mind-blowing ordeal of imprisonment and escape. The second audience, meanwhile, is made up of Herzog fans.
But let's face it: The wishful hopes of Rescue Dawn's producers and distributors notwithstanding, the first audience doesn't really exist, not in any significant numerical sense. That is, Americans of the current era only line up for war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers, mega-budgeted spectacles super-charged with Significance and Oscar ambitions.
So let us not expect any rah-rah welcome for this stripped-down, slyly old-fashioned tribute to the American fighting spirit by the multiplex hordes; they won't get it, won't even buy a ticket to attempt getting it. But that leaves us Herzog admirers.
I will confess my partisanship. Were I asked to name the five greatest living filmmakers, Herzog would certainly be on the list. That estimation has grown over the years, partly because of, not despite, the fact that his celebrity reached its zenith in the 1970s, the phenomenally fecund period of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Nosferatu, Woyzeck, Stroszek and others.
In the quarter-century since Fitzcarraldo, his last major dramatic film, Herzog has kept up a dizzying pace working in the nonfiction arena; indeed, perhaps no major director in cinema history combines so many achievements in the fictional and documentary realms. Much of this work has been for European television, and thus hasn't been seen in U.S. art houses. But as "Herzog Nonfiction," a recent retrospective at New York's Film Forum, proved, the director's documentary output has been consistently remarkable, and includes such outright coups as 1991's Lessons of Darkness and 2005's Grizzly Man.
Herzog's work is all about extremes—extreme personalities, extreme situations, extremes of nature and mind. Usually, however, one term dominates, and though in Rescue Dawn the drama is full of arduous challenges, I'd guess that what propelled Herzog to make the film were not the overt extremes of its story or setting, but the personality at its center.
Not that Dieter Dengler is an extreme type in the way Aguirre or Kaspar Hauser were. As portrayed by handsome Christian Bale, he's the very archetype of a genially gung-ho Navy airman, all eager confidence and crisp professionalism. Yet behind the veneer is an obsession born of childhood extremes: A kid during the desperate days of World War II, Dengler saw an American airplane fly so close while attacking his Black Forest village that he could see the pilot's face. From that moment on, little Dieter had to fly.
Two decades later, he has immigrated to America, joined the Navy air corps and made it onto an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam. He knows nothing of the war's politics; he lives to fly. But on his first bombing run over North Vietnam, he's shot down in Laos and quickly captured. Subjected to torture and forced marches from the first, he's offered the chance to be repatriated if only he'll sign a statement against U.S. policy in Vietnam. He refuses, saying, "I love America. America gave me wings."
Imprisoned in a crude stockade run by brutish Laotian villagers, Dengler finds himself in a small, miserable company that includes two Americans, abashed Duane (Steve Zahn) and nutty "Gene from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies, looking like a toothpick-thin Charles Manson). The conditions are onerous indeed: The prisoners sleep shackled together, no matter the prevalence of diarrhea and dysentery. Yet it's not the conditions that make Dieter determined to escape; it's the principle of the thing.
The others persuade him he's doomed unless he waits till monsoon season, and they're reluctant to join him until they hear the guards plotting to kill them all. One day, their chance arrives and they take it, yet the carefully planned break-out erupts in chaos and mayhem. Dengler and Duane flee into the jungle together, with guns but no shoes, embarking on an odyssey even more grueling than what they've escaped.
This story has the classic contours of movies like The Great Escape, and Herzog does nothing to violate the form. In fact, his dramatization of the punishments endured by his protagonists is notably less graphic and stomach-turning than what Dengler describes in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog's restraint here—which includes averting the camera's eye from the gruesome end of one character—surely reflects his principled stand against the commercial cinema's increasing bloodlust and sensationalism.
In coloring within genre lines, Herzog opts for dramatic precision rather than venturing the thematic reach or metaphysical resonance of many of his films. Dengler's story, as I put it in writing about Little Dieter Needs to Fly, "suggests not so much the human potential for cruelty and suffering as the capacity for endurance and the inscrutability of fate. Dieter went to hell and, like Odysseus, came back with his mind entire. Why this voyager and none of the others? Death didn't want him, but it doesn't say why."
Clearly, Herzog embraces Dieter partly as an alter ego, an analogue for himself. Both men grew up in remote areas of Germany and endured the privations of the post-World War II era. Dengler (who died in 2001) remade himself as an American, as Herzog, in his own fashion, has done in more recent times. Herzog has said that Dengler exemplified—as perhaps only an immigrant, a born-again American, can—the qualities he most admires about his adopted country: its optimism, its generosity, its good-heartedness.
The tribute the director pays his subject in telling his story a second time is to give it a form that's quintessentially American, and as unassumingly professional as Dengler's piloting was. The best thing about Rescue Dawn is that you always feel like you're in the hands of a consummate craftsman, a director who knows where to put the camera in every moment and who never feels the need to overstate or sensationalize; it's the kind of quietly exacting work you'd expect from a Howard Hawks or Richard Brooks.
The script, Herzog's first dramatic screenplay in English, has a great feel for American vernacular, and the film's performances are similarly on-target. While edgy Davies and stalwart Zahn offer turns excellent enough to be considered Oscar-worthy, the versatile, charismatic Bale beautifully captures the infectious determination, preternatural courage and almost goofy good humor of Dieter Dengler.
I don't know where Dengler's flying at the moment, but if he glances down, I can't help but think he'd smile on the warm, compelling portrait of him created by Bale and Herzog, the latter also giving us, perhaps, a rare bit of projected self-portraiture.
Rescue Dawn opens Friday in select theaters.
The main virtue of Danny Boyle's sci-fi would-be epic Sunshine for me was that, in watching it, I had the mental time to formulate what I'd say to Boyle if I find myself sitting next to him on an airplane: "Please, please stop working with Alex Garland!"
Thanks to his first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting (both scripted by John Hodge), Boyle once looked like the most gifted and promising British moviemaker of his generation. But after three movies derived from Garland writings, also including The Beach (scripted by Hodge from Garland's novel) and the overrated 28 Days Later, he seems an object lesson in the truism that a director who doesn't write can be no better than the writer on whom he depends.
Both 28 Days Later and Sunshine strike me as examples of what I call movies constructed from the outside in. That is, rather than beginning with a potent idea or emotion and elaborating it into characters and story, the filmmakers start with the externals, thinking, for example, "Gee, what about a sci-fi movie set aboard a spaceship!" Ideas? Characters? Story? Those are concocted to fit the hardware, and thus never feel organic, persuasive or even particularly involving.
Sunshine concerns a crew of astronauts (a multi-culti bunch played by whites such as Cillian Murphy and Asians including Michelle Yeoh) aiming to give Earth's ailing Sun a nuclear injection comparable in galactic terms to the hypo-to-the-heart that Uma Thurman gets in Pulp Fiction. Not a terrible premise, but not a great one either.
The film would like to be brooding and profound like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky's Solaris, or strange and thrilling like Ridley Scott's Alien. Unfortunately, because it really has nothing to say (other than "Let's make a sci-fi movie!"), it falls between those particular stools, ending up as only a stylish exercise in genre plate-spinning—and another good argument for Boyle to find a better writing partner.
Sunshine opens Friday throughout the Triangle.