Few would deny that Werner Herzog is anything less than one of the most personal and idiosyncratic filmmakers around. And fewer still would take issue with the idea of Herzog as the filmmaker most likely to champion the cause of the obsessed. Whether we’re talking about Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1979) or Grizzly Man (2005), we’re talking about a filmmaker who is fascinated with obsessives. The same is true of his latest, Rescue Dawn, though that may not be wholly clear until the film reaches the “what happened next” title card that concludes the film. On the other hand, those who come to the film with Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly in mind will recognize the obsession straight away—and Herzog’s obsession with exploring the same story in dramatized terms here. In that regard, Rescue Dawn ought to be vintage Herzog.
Casting Christian Bale (the actor most likely to starve himself for a movie) as the pilot and Vietnam P.O.W. Dieter Dengler was a masterstroke on Herzog’s part. Casting an apparently equally game Steve Zahn—a good actor usually wasted in comedy roles—was similarly inspired. The usual Herzog look is in evidence in the film’s amazing depiction of its jungle landscapes: beautiful and threatening all at once. The film’s opening, with a gliding aerial shot of Laotian villages being bombed, is brilliant. Evidence of Herzogian quirk is on hand, as is the impression of a director who doesn’t mind in the least putting his cast through hell to get the movie he wants. And yet … something is wrong this film.
Oh, it’s a good movie, maybe even a very good movie. But something is lacking, and something feels a little false by the end of the film. There’s a sense about Rescue Dawn of things being done by rote. I saw the film with a group of fairly savvy, if not exactly hardcore movie buffs, none of whom knew who Herzog was. Their reactions—including numerous Rambo references—lead me to suspect that at least some of the rush to praise the film has less to do with the quality of the work itself than with the fact that it was made by Herzog. Is Rescue Dawn a pretty generic prison-camp movie that takes on undeserved significance when viewed through Herzog-colored glasses? To at least some degree, I’m afraid that’s the case.
Take away the Herzog touches (and they feel more like touches than integral parts of the film), and there’s really not much here you haven’t seen before. Worse, you’re sometimes seeing things that you have seen before, but not in a Herzog film. The “here is where you cheer” ending—looking for all the world like something out of a Tom Cruise flick—is particularly troublesome coming from a director with Herzog’s accomplishments. Herzog has been everything from brilliant to maddening to nearly incomprehensible, but never before has he been trite.
There’s also a perfunctory quality to much of the film, a sense of hitting all the necessary plot points without much feeling or insight. For example, Herzog is very good at depicting the tortures inflicted on Dengler when he’s first captured. These are detailed and appropriately disturbing—sometimes in odd ways, as when a child dangles a flying insect over Dengler’s head. But the setup for the torture scenes—the nasty Province Governor (TV actor François Chau) interrogating him, Dengler’s almost offhand refusal to sign a statement against the U.S.—is unpersuasive and clichéd to a point where you expect to hear, “We have ways of making you talk” at any moment. Similarly, Dengler sometimes seems too good to be true: more unflinching superman than man.
However, there are good parts to the film. Dengler’s description of why he decided to become a flyer is extraordinary, and his relationship with Duane (Zahn) has a remarkable sense of reality. A hallucinatory scene late in the film—one where the viewer isn’t immediately sure that it is hallucinatory—is brilliant and brilliantly moving. For moments like these, and the fact that Herzog is incapable of being uninteresting, Rescue Dawn is worth seeing. But it’s just not the movie it ought to have been. Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.