Most critics have approached Werner Herzog’s latest film Rescue Dawn with qualifying kid gloves, as if it would be impolite to question a late work from such a grand old man of the seventies German New Wave. Those who are respectful of his earlier career but not exactly enthused may be perplexed by this odd duck of a film, a hybrid of Herzog’s patented man against nature impulses and a smoothly engineered piece of studio product. In recent years, Herzog has been more noted as a documentarian than a maker of fiction films, and he has blurred the two forms with distinctive results, unapologetically giving his documentary protagonists lines of dialogue and having them rehearse their business for his camera. This new film is a feature continuation of Herzog’s documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which was about Dieter Dengler, a pilot captured in Vietnam who made a perilous escape from a POW camp. In his documentaries, Herzog often toys with what information to give the audience and what to withhold, and he does much the same thing in Rescue Dawn, with bewildering results.
The title, which comes from the name of Dengler’s mission, is the first head-scratcher: it sounds like a generic eighties action entry for Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. The initial military scenes, where the soldiers joke around with each other, are downright bizarre: Herzog stares at these American macho men as if he was making an investigation of their vernacular and rituals for some university study. Everything sounds slightly off; the soldier’s gung-ho attitudes feel almost deliberately unreal. These scenes are a tip-off that Herzog is really making a cleverly obfuscated comment on what he sees as basically stupid, unreflective (but maybe irresistible?) American energy. The sense of American caricature isn’t as broad as it was in Herzog’s earlier Stroszek, but the director’s basic attitudes towards the country haven’t changed much over time.
When Dengler’s plane is grounded, there are familiar views of Herzog’s metaphorical jungle, where birdies don’t chirp but “scream in pain,” and elegant camera moves to the right and left as Dengler tries to evade capture. If Herzog’s treatment of the American characters is ambiguous (he can’t be bothered to make any clear judgment on the war in Vietnam, or Dengler’s bombing run), his treatment of the Vietnamese is helplessly retrograde. The Vietnamese characters don’t have clear personalities: they sit around inscrutably. Herzog films the chief villain of the POW camp, known as Little Hitler (Teerawat Mulvilai), in harsh, objectifying close-ups that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood Japan-hating movie of the forties (there were vagrant moments, too, when I thought I was watching the Russian roulette stuff in The Deer Hunter). Herzog doesn’t seem to want to take a stand on these POW guards either way, and he has said that he soft-pedaled some of their most gruesome torture tactics. Unfortunately, his visuals play into demonizing clichés of The Other. Now that America has tortured its own detainees, why choose to tell this story at this time if you aren’t going to try to see the bigger picture?
The casting of Christian Bale as Dengler brings with it associations of a similar, far superior film: Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, where the young Bale played a boy who also gets stuck in a POW camp. His scurrying survivor in Empire of the Sun was touching because of his age. As a grown man, Bale plays Dengler like a trapped, cheerfully neutered goofball, a big kid who never considers why he is doing anything. Herzog seems to want us to find him against-all-odds likable, but this strategy feels more self-preserving than anything else, as if he is saying, “You Americans sure are violent idiots, but you hold all the money and power, right now, so I’d better look on the bright sideâ€¦your optimismâ€¦Coca Colaâ€¦your consumer goodsâ€¦alright, right on! Or, um, sweet!”
The best section of Rescue Dawn is the escape from the camp itself and its aftermath, where Bale and fellow prisoner Steve Zahn make their way through the jungle. Zahn is the heart of the movie, a very quiet, unsteady man, the weak-willed best buddy you need to shelter. He also serves as the film’s leading lady, in the old-fashioned sense: Bale is always pulling him by the hand and scooping him up in his arms when he gets tired, or can’t handle any more strife. In his balanced New York Times review, Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out that the unthinking, primal love portrayed between these two men is a truly radical thing in American film, and it is. Herzog shies away from any sexuality here, but it is a fair question: we see these guys shit their pants all the time, and scrounge desperately for food. What do they do for sex? Do they all hide from each other behind bushes to jerk off as the months go by? Still, Dengler’s tenderness for his friend is touchingly exemplary, and it goes down so easy because Herzog films their pas de deux like a silent film (inter-titles would not be out of place), and encourages unembarrassing extremism in the performances.
Extremism elsewhere in the film is disastrous. If Jeremy Davies doesn’t stop talking with his hands in movies, something drastic will need to be done. Confinement of some sort might work, but he’d probably be just as unbearably hipper-than-thou in a straightjacket. The most offensive thing about his performance as a particularly obnoxious inmate is the way he flaunts his Auschwitz torso to the camera in every other scene, as if his skin and bones were some out-there acting badge of honor. Bale has a similar reverse vanity problem: as in The Machinist, he lost lots of weight for this role, but this time the feat leads to confusion. He’s at normal poundage for most of the film, then, suddenly, while he’s in the jungle with Zahn, he seems to drop all the weight in his face all at once, so that you wonder how long they’ve been out there.
The ending, an unambiguous triumph with Dengler cheered by hundreds of soldiers and led off in glory, is the strangest thing in this strange film. Rescue Dawn was shown to soldiers in Iraq this July 4th. What are they supposed to make of it? Dengler gives no thought as to why he’s in Vietnam, and all he wants to do is escape a prison, finally. Spare me from drawing the obvious conclusion. Herzog and Bale aren’t being creative together in Rescue Dawn: they’re sharing pathologies. Just because Herzog loves to endure filming in remote locations, and just because Bale likes to punish his body for his art doesn’t make their masochistic predilections interesting, at least not here; they bring out the worst in each other. This is not a good movie, but it is fairly telling. Underneath Rescue Dawn‘s rather sunny, seemingly neutral point of view, bug-eating and knee-jerk militarism stand in for the uncomfortable position of America, culturally, politically and morally.