Rescue Dawn

I remember when I first started hearing the hushed online mutterings concerning "new Herzog movie," perhaps my three favorite words in the English language. From the start, I had low expectations. He was reworking "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," his documentary about Dieter Dengler, a German born American POW who was shot down in his fighter plane during the Vietnam war, into a live-action feature. OK, fine. Herzog obviously had been enamored with Mr. Dengler when he made his original film, but right from the start the redundancy of the project seemed insurmountable. Partly as an attempt to convince myself of the film's possible merit, I wrote of my doubts (in Idiot Ego) that "at 64, Herzog has earned the right to be trusted to try." So I stuck to that gun, even as the horizon for "Rescue Dawn" (ugh.. the title) grew ever darker. Steve Zahn is in it. Elton Brand is the producer. Shit. What?! A little piece of the Great God Herzog died in me every time another tidbit on the film was dolled out. It finally opened in limited release on the Fourth of July (ugh ugh ugh,) going up against "Transformers." That hideous one-two punch was, for me, the final straw.

I still didn't get it. Why would Werner Herzog, who even in recent years never seemed to lack a suitably interesting and "Herzogian" concept for a film, now choose to make a dramatic feature with quasi-hollywood money about a man whose story he had already told? Only one way to find out; I caught one of the last screenings of the film in September. The film is a patriotic, celebratory tale of perserverence, with Dengler (as he did in real life) escaping his captors by fighting and clawing through the dense jungles of Laos. It's as true to life as Herzog's original film was, which is to say, not completely. Disinterest in hard facts is nothing new for the director, so, putting that aside, we move on to more pressing questions; how do we judge this as part of Herzog's greater output? Unfortunately, we have to pick it apart, and it doesn't take a machete to reveal a bit of the film's underlying dry rot.

It is easy to draw fast parallels from Herzog to Dengler, in that in both men are German-born men who share a love for their adopted country, America. The film makes no direct judgments of America as a whole, but implies nobleness and virtue in Dengler's selfless execution of duty. Is that type of flag-waving appropriate, suitable, or excusable as entertainment currently, in this time of war not unlike the war the film depicts? That is a larger question, and one the film wisely does not attempt to answer. Perhaps it is suitable at least to marvel at the childlike, casual heroism of this man, with his unabashed love of America worn loudly and proudly for all to see. That there are so few men like this in America today might give us pause, but it is not difficult to accept the character of Dengler a great American, misguided or not.

Conversely, knowing that Herzog freely embellishes the details of this story fatally damages it's effectiveness as an exercise in hero worship. By seeking his "ecstatic truth." thereby co-opting and altering the actual events, doesn't this fail to then enoble his subject? If Herzog is so desperate to pay homage to Dieter Dengler, why not just tell it how it really was? Why is that not sufficient? Herzog would no doubt tell you that the truths which his fictions attempt to convey are greater than the factual truth, and more valuable, but in this case they are not. Ultimately, what Herzog again serves us is a semi-fake story about a semi-real great american. In this age of conflict and fear, it seems to amount to only a semi-believable story, born out of a semi-great country.

In his DVD commentary, Herzog downplays the upscale budget of the film. It is fair to grant him some leeway here, but not completely. He also doesn't think it's a war movie, but of course it is, just as much as any other film which depicts POWs but does not depict actual combat. We must not forget that Herzog is now 65 years old. By virtue of his casting a huge movie star, he has been granted access to an enormous (by his previous standards) budget. Whether he likes it or not, he has made a what will be referred to as a "Hollywood" movie. This is a personal adventure for Herzog, a dalliance, and it seems clear that Herzog is enjoying playing with his new toys, immersed for the first time in a world of mainstream movie mainstays, such as shoot-out scenes and plane crashes. That said, the commentary track is uncharacteristically uninspired. He does not seem to exude the creative joy that he often has in other projects. For those of us who have followed the rhetoric of Herzog, his defenses seem more and more like the party line. He calls it a "triumph of cinema. Not of accountants," and we have heard this before. In this case, the repository of creative principles which Herzog has so convincingly and consistently espoused as the the moralistic backbone of his work begins to feel more like an inescapable thematic crutch.

Unquestionably, "Rescue Dawn" is about more than just Werner Herzog, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge the very good performance by Christian Bale as Dieter. The actor once again does his weight loss trick, and we are left to wonder if Herzog short-listed Bale for this ability when casting the role. Tired as the transformation is (after the hullabaloo over "The Machinist,") it does force a stroke of realism on the film that it might not otherwise have achieved. I must also admit that Steve Zahn, as Dieter's cowardly, timid partner in escape, is actually a laser-precise piece of what might be called stunt casting, the perfect counterweight to Bale's cocky, brave Dengler.

"Rescue Dawn," though it stands apart from it's predecessor, is no more the inspiring true story of Dieter Dengler than was "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." So again we ask: What is Herzog's agenda? Maybe we should allow him not to have one, other than to leave his tiny stamp on the world of the American war film. The film is a memorably forgettable exercise, likely to rate unfavorably along side a similar dalliance from Herzog's past, "Where the Green Ants Dream," a film which Herzog himself has often lamented. What "Rescue Dawn" has that "Ants" did not is focus, and for that it is easily the better film. But much like "Ants," when we reach for Herzog, we will not reach for this. When reaching for Bale, however, this would be a fine choice.

There are, once again, online muttering concerning the "new Herzog." His next adventure has found him traversing and documenting the landscapes and inhabitants of Antarctica, both human and otherwise. It is called "Encounters at the End of the World." It features the same director of photography and editor of "Rescue Dawn," both of whom have been with Herzog since "Little Dieter" in 1997. It also features Werner Herzog. It does not feature an NBA star as it's producer, an A-list actor, or a screenplay.

My hopes are high.

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