Remaking Little Dieter Needs to Fly as a fictional feature always seemed a project doomed to unflattering comparisons, as Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary about the titular German-American fighter pilot and his escape from a Vietnam POW camp remains one of the purest and most moving evocations of the director’s belief in man’s violent relationship to the natural world, and the difficulty in rising above one’s past. And yet here is Rescue Dawn, a stunning film that – despite criticisms that it’s an example of Herzog succumbing to easy, uncomplicated convention – radiates with the same haunting unreality and quirky poetry that marked Little Dieter’s non-fiction footage of American planes bombing Vietnamese forests, images which commence this fictionalized version of Dieter Dengler’s lengthy saga inside (and then in the jungles surrounding) a Laos prisoner-of-war facility. Herzog’s decision to tell his tale in linear fashion certainly gives the impression that he’s after something straightforward. However, peeking around the corners of his latest are moments of such subtle, wondrous artistry that the project quickly feels less a concession to marketplace demands than a highly personal restatement of his career’s most pressing concerns.
The fraught-with-tension rapport between humanity and its environment is Rescue Dawn’s foremost topic, introduced during an aircraft carrier-set debriefing session in which an instructional video about using the wildlife to one’s advantage – employing foliage as cover, wielding big leaves to drink rainwater – is mocked by a wiseass pilot. Far from a laughing matter, such lessons become vital once Dengler, during an entrancing aerial dogfight that’s often shot from directly behind his cockpit, is gunned down in enemy territory and left to fend for himself. Given that his lifelong desire had been to fly (instigated by a childhood experience seeing a WWII bomber up-close and in-action), the fact that Dengler (Christian Bale) screams “I’m not gonna bail out!” as his plane spirals out of control speaks to the borderline-obsessiveness of his dream. It’s a dream that maintains its grip on his heart even after his attempts to evade capture prove unsuccessful and he’s taken by local militiamen to a middle-of-nowhere camp populated by a few Vietnamese and American detainees, including Jeremy Davies’ emaciated, loony tunes Gene and Steve Zahn’s soft-spoken, frazzled Duane.
The lush, mountainous Vietnam landscape is initially depicted by Herzog as a prehistoric land of the lost (replete with animal noises and primordial moans and hums) in which Dengler is a modern alien, and Bale’s performance – marked by facial tics, anxious giggles, and an increasingly starved physique – is fittingly structured as a reversion to a more primal state of being. As his Dengler steels himself for an escape, Bale ably embodies the character’s progressive kinship with his surroundings, maniacally stuffing his face with worms once the food supply runs dry, crawling under his cabin like a scurrying crab during his eventual breakout, and pulling blood-sucking leeches off his body after a dip in a river. Throughout, Herzog remains fascinated with his narrative’s various dichotomies (modern-primitive, man-nature, first world-third world, American-Vietnamese), of which Dengler’s adaptability and yet steadfast loyalty to his convictions – the latter exhibited by his refusal to sign a letter decrying the U.S. – is the one which truly captures the director’s imagination. And thus when the pilot flees into the seemingly impenetrable forest without shoes (in what is likely a suicide mission), Herzog’s respect for Dengler’s bravery is so great that – in an act of spiritual empathy – he literally immerses his camera in the thick brush and roaring rapids that Dengler navigates.
The conflict between Dengler and Davies’ Gene (the latter intent on waiting for a heroic U.S. armed forces rescue) is cast as one between courage and cowardice, and remains the story’s most unadventurous element, in part because Davies’ stir-crazy pain-in-the-ass distracts attention away from Herzog’s more inspired flights of fancy. Rescue Dawn’s baseline narrative is stirring but its offhand touches are what elevate it to near-greatness, amplifying the already somewhat surreal atmosphere with lyrical punctuations. A boy dangling a giant rhino beetle tied to a string above Dengler’s face, a close-up of Dengler eating kernels of rice off a table with his finger while a machine gun fires haphazardly, Duane touching a plant’s leaves like piano keys (twinkling music included) – Herzog’s tangential details lend the film an expressionistic, ethereal quality that nicely mingles with the action’s otherwise dynamic grittiness. Moreover, they also ultimately help temper the conclusion’s melodramatic elation, with the rescued Dengler’s boisterous welcome-home celebrations providing uplift that never quite outweighs the sense (conveyed more fully by Little Dieter Needs to Fly) that while he may have physically escaped the jungle, part of Dengler nonetheless remains in the mud and the muck, hallucinating about giving his fallen friend Duane a rubber shoe sole to wear.