WERNER HERZOG has been here before, and not just because he first visited this story in his 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." His first Hollywood feature, "Rescue Dawn" is a dramatic interpretation of the true-life ordeal of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who escaped from a Laotian prisoner-of-war camp and survived weeks in the jungle just before the start of the Vietnam War. Herzog returns to the themes that have preoccupied him throughout his career -- the single-minded hero with the impossible dream, the cruel indifference of nature to his desires, the obsessions that rescue and doom him. Like the protagonists of "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," Dengler is the quintessential Herzog hero, evincing a strength of purpose that strains at the edges of human potential and possessed of an unwavering certainty that flirts with crazy but -- in this case, at least -- declines to seal the deal.
As portrayed by a simultaneously vulpine and puppyish Christian Bale, pared down to skin and bones for the role, Dieter appears to be psychologically incapable of countenancing defeat. Born in Germany during World War II, Dieter's earliest experiences were marked by extreme deprivation and hardship. He became obsessed with flying after a bomber flew so close to his house that he was able to look the pilot in the eyes. It's a defining incident that Dengler recounts in the documentary and Bale reprises in the film. As vivid as the anecdote is, it's hard not to wonder if the experience has not been distorted in his memory by the need to impart order and meaning on the senseless suffering.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 107 words Type of Material: Correction
'Rescue Dawn': A review of "Rescue Dawn" in the July 4 Calendar said Navy pilot Dieter Dengler escaped from a Laotian prisoner-of-war camp and survived weeks in the jungle just before the start of the Vietnam War. As the review later says, Dengler was held as a prisoner of war in 1966; that was after the start of the Vietnam War. The review also said that Dengler became obsessed with flying after a bomber flew so close to his house that he was able to look the pilot in the eyes. The plane that flew by that he said made a lasting impression was a single-engine fighter.
If indeed Dieter's memory of the event is more interpretation than pure recollection, it's remarkable for its adaptiveness. You can't believe that this is what little Dieter takes away from his first brush with death. As one of his fellow POWs exclaims upon hearing the story, "a guy tries to kill you, and you want his job!"
His childhood close encounter would not be the last time Dieter exchanged meaningful glances with death. The film begins in 1966, when Dieter and his battalion are sent on a secret bombing raid over Laos. After his plane is shot down, Dieter endures a few days of torture at the hands of Pathet Lao soldiers. After he refuses to sign a statement denouncing United States policies, he is taken to a POW camp.
To Dieter's surprise, he meets two fellow Americans there, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), as well as three Southeast Asian prisoners, Y.C. (Galen Yuen), Phisit (Abhujati Jusakul) and Procet (Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat). Some of them have languished in the camp for more than two years.
Gradually, and against Gene's wishes, Dieter meticulously plans their escape.
In different hands, this extraordinary story of survival might have played like a catalog of action tropes. And it would be something if suddenly Herzog decided to hit us with some slow-motion acrobatics against a Jimi Hendrix track (though I'm not sure what). None of the usual consolations is offered here -- no soaring violins, or quivering nostrils, or righteous killings or platitudes about faith in God and government.
Herzog has never been interested in mythmaking, and it's safe to say he isn't starting to be interested in it now. If anything, he seeks to do the opposite. He places three people in one harrowing situation and watches them react. Aside from a riveting adventure story that Herzog tells in all of its terrifying, stripped-down simplicity, "Rescue Dawn" is a fascinating study of human particularity.
Bale, Zahn and Davies disappear completely into their roles -- for that matter, they nearly disappear altogether -- as three men with wildly different approaches to life. A docile company man, Gene remains convinced until the end that the Army is planning his rescue -- even though the Army prefers not to admit he exists. He is suspicious and fearful of Dieter's flouting of authority and confused by Dieter's self-reliance. Duane, on the other hand, attaches himself to the leader who offers him the best chance at survival. It's amazing to see Davies and Zahn reduced to emaciated nubs of pure character -- talk about who you are in a crisis. And Bale does something amazing, his Dieter seems to become more calm, more sure of himself with every passing day, until he practically glows.
In "Little Dieter Learns to Fly," the real Dengler gives Herzog a tour of his house, revealing the terrors that never left him, like his lifelong fear of hunger and closed doors. What makes Dieter fascinating is not what he feared but what the fear made him do. Dieter's talents weren't limited to picking handcuffs, hording rice or plotting ambushes. He created a game in which he and the other prisoners took turns detailing the contents of an ideal imaginary refrigerator. Survival, as Herzog suggests, requires a combination of attention to detail and imagination, craft and faith. It's an art, in other words, and Dengler was quite possibly its genius.
"Rescue Dawn." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture. Running time: 2 hours. At Pacific ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; and Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.