Human's struggle to survive the relentless forces of nature, and to survive the interior forces that lead to obsession and madness - these are themes running through most, if not all, of Werner Herzog's work. A true visionary film-maker Werner Herzog has always tried to come up with stories, the viewers could never have imagined and sights that they have never seen -- the boat pulled over the mountain in "Fitzcarraldo " -- and of nature's calm, violent regaining of the upper hand. The rain-forest swallowing people in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." He always has the distinguished trait of establishing the unvanquished human dreams, but his nightmares are vivid too.
Writer/director Herzog, in "Rescue Dawn", tells the story of Dieter Dangler, the subject of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The story of Dieter offers a fantastic tale of war, freedom, and fortitude, set in the jungles of Indochina. In the 1997 documentary, Dieter says that his his town was destroyed in an American bombing raid during World War II. Later, at the age of 18, Dieter left for America, enlisting in the Air Force and was peeling potatoes for years before he was permitted to enter Navy flight school. He joined the flight school and went to Vietnam war just because he wanted to fly. He also wanted to fly because his childhood had been traumatized by war.
Near the opening of the film, Herzog presents a bombing sequence, where a U.S. Navy fighter drops bright orange explosives onto the greenest of Laotian people. To Dieter Dengler, the first-time pilot in Vietnam War it feels elegant, distant, thrilling. But, all of a sudden, everything changes. Christian Bale stars as Dieter Dengler and Herzog has once again ventured deep into the jungle to shoot the movie. Bale lives as Dieter, whose craft slams into a rice paddy, and he goes from untouchable to hunted in seconds. Furious Laotian villagers catch Dieter, before he even has a chance to tear off his flight helmet.
He was tortured and tossed into a compound run by the Viet Cong. But, Dieter has an eerie, almost illogical confidence and so he starts planning his escape. That king of confidence and craziness is exactly what two of the American POW's at prison camp don't have. There is Gene (a hollow Jeremy Davies), who whispers that rescuers are coming any minute, and there is Duane (Steve Zahn), who always advises Dieter, "Keep your head down and your mouth shut. That's your best chance of surviving." Dieter still boasts to his mates that he is going to escape - on July 4 (American Independence day). "The jungle is the prison, don't you get it?" says Duane.
Ultimately, Dieter pulls off the breakout, but the things happens next, as Dieter and company slash their way through death-grip jungle foliage, braving the elements, fleeing the enemy, and struggling to find food, is the heart of this astonishingly powerful tale. And the tale is powerful because of the way Herzog tells it: without the genre conventions and usual Hollywood tools of multi-angle camera shots, pumped-up music cues, hackneyed dialogue.
No movie character seems to be beyond for the versatile, ever-changing actor Christian Bale. He has worked with best directors of our era, like Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Malik, Herzog, Zhang Yimou, Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. As Dieter he has played a typical Herzog-ian hero -- wounded, a holy fool, a crackpot, a dreamer of outsized dreams. Bale incarnates a forthrightness and simplicity that are almost radical. Viewers can literally see him wasting away as the movie progresses, losing all the soft, boyish enthusiasm that characterized him in the first reel until he is a hollowed out skeleton. But, as the movie emphasizes up to the closing shots, Dieter was never defeated. Bale is well supported by Steve Zahn, perhaps best known for playing likable characters in comedies, gives the best and most heartbreaking performance of his career as the doomed Duane. Jeremy Davies, who looks like a walking skeleton, with his wild hair and freaky manner subtly signifies the insanity one gets from the jungle.
Director Werner Herzog, for years, has been adorning a kind of cinematic meditation on the pitilessness of nature. In 'Rescue Dawn', Herzog once again manages to find unexpected beauty in a story that seems to transpire before Vietnam became a trope for cynicism and defeat. His view in this movie is totally apolitical. Some people might feel that Herzog hasn’t given viewers a fully balanced picture of the Vietnam War and that he is demeaning the Vietnamese people by portraying them only as the brutal and sadistic captors of the American good guys. Rescue Dawn might not have that nuanced portrayal, but it's simply not the kind of film for such an approach. Dieter's perception of Vietnamese and Vietnam, while in that prison camp was not a particularly multifaceted one. So, this is not a "Vietnam war story", just a simple survival tale.
At the near end of the movie someone asks Dieter whether it was a belief in God and country that got him through his ordeal, and he responds, "I believe I need a steak." Such is the unsentimental, coherent spirit that animates "Rescue Dawn," making it one of the best war movies. In the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the real Dieter recounts his amazing tale of escape and rescue. He says, "I don't think of myself as a hero. No, only dead people are heroes." So, 'Rescue Dawn' is not about heroism, it's about something deeper, more primitive: survival instinct.
Watch "Rescue Dawn" to salute Dieter and Wener Herzog's appetite for life.