Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Film Review--Rescue Dawn (2007)

Werner Herzog finally returns to the jungle, and it’s about time. His documentaries have continued to be great through the years, but his features have suffered dramatically since he left the wild with Klaus Kinski’s death. Rescue Dawn, his latest film, is an adaptation of his fantastic 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Both stories are about Dieter Dengler, a German-born pilot in the US Navy just before the Viet Nam conflict who, on his first [secret] mission, is shot down over Laos. Captured and placed in a Laotian POW camp. There, he orchestrates an escape from the prison and, with one companion, fights the jungle for freedom.

Little Dieter Needs To Fly is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, so to say that Rescue Dawn doesn’t measure up in any way is not so much a slight to the latter as it is a testament to the former’s greatness. Still, it’s true. The harrowing tale of Dieter Dengler’s escape from certain death is much better told from Dengler’s own perspective than from the cold, peculiar way Herzog directs his actors. Christian Bale’s Dengler is far less intense and far less human than his once-living counterpart. Steve Zahn, however, who plays Duane Martin, the inmate he brings with him through the jungle (and a man only casually mentioned in the documentary) is an absolute revelation. I have not generally enjoyed his past work but here he channels the spirit of the grandly insane Kinski and is plain frightening with the deranged look in his eyes. Both actors clearly lost a lot of weight for the role; both look terrible with the emaciated bodies and relatively oversized heads of starvation. But it’s Zahn bravura performance that really makes these characters’ interactions memorable. The same does not hold true, however, for the other characters in the film. Unfortunately, the other members of the camp (including Jeremy Davies) are non-characters, simply in to add warm bodies to an otherwise deserted camp. Worse yet is the treatment of the soldiers manning the camp. They are nothing but caricatures of villains; there is no doubt that, once Dengler mentions the escape, there will be little to no resistance. It appears that there was more effort in making them fully fleshed characters, but it is a joke and a failure.

On the other hand, if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I must realize that the human characters really are not what this movie revolves around. The true main character in Rescue Dawn is the jungle and it is the jungle that drives the plot. Without the jungle, there is no Dengler and no journey. Without Dengler and the journey, there is still the jungle. Jeremy Davies says to Dengler upon learning of his intention to escape that “the jungle is the prison.” More than that, it is also judge, jury, and executioner. Only by sheer accident does Dengler not die; in the end, he has little control over his life. This oppressive villain is brought to life by the cinematography of Peter Zeitlinger, who also shot the documentary (as well as Herzog’s previous recent hit, Grizzly Man, no matter how much they try to claim that Tim Treadwell shot that footage). Stunningly beautiful, especially in combination with the varied, minimal music, but you can feel the wet heat coming off the screen and it’s an oppressive, foreboding experience.

Like the rest of Herzog’s canon, Rescue Dawn is the cinema of the extreme. Never in forty years has the director wavered from his position on filmmaking. There has likely never been a director with less regard for the wellbeing of his cast or himself. Like he’s done to himself and, especially, to his two main lead actors over the years, Klaus Kinski and Bruno S, Herzog puts Bale and Zahn into peril that no actor should be forced to endure. While this makes for an unsettling humanistic argument, nobody can argue with the results. The realism of his features (and the fiction of his documentaries) is what sets him apart from his peers. Maybe the dialogue isn’t natural, but the situations are and, at their best (of which this is one), they are some of most arresting and unsettling pictures in modern cinema. Rescue Dawn has its faults, worst of which is an unnecessary and lame ending that brings the whole thing down, but it’s the best feature film he’s done since 1988’s Cobra Verde (though some may argue that Verde is terrible, I refuse this argument) and the best wartime drama I’ve seen since The Thin Red Line. It’s highly recommended but, for the better experience, I would instead seek out Little Dieter Needs To Fly.