Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Rescue Dawn

As gallingly conventional as many of the film's cinematic strategies may be, Werner Herzog's POW-escape drama Rescue Dawn is a surprisingly warm and occasionally thrilling offering from the prolific director. Treating the same material as his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the new film casts Christian Bale in the role of Dieter Dengler, a man whose lifelong compulsion to fly led him to enlist in the Navy under whose auspices his plane was shot down over Laos during a covert Vietnam War mission. Captured and tortured by the Vietcong, he engineered an improbable escape. In the earlier film, we rely on Dieter's narration to depict the events, but here Herzog brings an added immediacy to the material by staging the escape in grand cinematic fashion. Like those great prison break pictures Grand Illusion and A Man Escaped, Rescue Dawn offers a thrillingly suspenseful treatment of the process, but where those films bring a unique thematic and aesthetic perspective to the material, Herzog's film substitutes a surprisingly bland visual style and a willingness to settle for too many easy filmmaking conventions.

Herzog's compositional sense is too great for the film to be completely bereft of visual appeal, especially given such a promising setting as the Thailand jungle where the picture was filmed, but overall his camerawork comes across as lazy and uninspired. He relies heavily on crane shots and hand held work, keeping the camera in constant motion, a strategy that may serve to underscore the film's inherent tension, but leads to many of the shots feeling uncomposed and haphazardly staged. The shooting of a typical scene consists of little more than Herzog moving his crane-fixed camera around to focus on whichever character happens to be speaking. The lack of imagination in the director's visual aesthetic stamps the work as a surprisingly conventional piece of filmmaking. Still, Herzog occasionally tosses off some lovely shots. In one scene, for example, the Vietcong torture Dieter by dunking him in a well. Herzog films most of the action in close-up, but eventually cuts away, ending the sequence on a lovely overhead long-shot with Christian Bale's head poking out of the tiny opening of the well, a small circle off center in an empty field.

Perhaps the pressures of making a studio film have gotten to Herzog, but he relies too often on the sort of cliched filmmaking strategies that dominate many lesser pictures. In one scene, Dieter and fellow escapee Duane (Steve Zahn) make their way downriver on a raft before they realize they are about to go over a waterfall. They jump off at the last minute and the raft abruptly topples over the falls. This sort of "just in the nick of time" contrivance would seem too facile a device to interest a filmmaker like Herzog and yet he employs it again during the film's climax. As Dieter finally attracts the attention of Navy helicopters, he waits for them to lower their ropes so he can climb up. Because the noise of the choppers will surely attract the attention of the Vietcong, time becomes an important factor. At the exact moment that Dieter makes it to the top of the ladder and enters the helicopter, the Vietcong emerge and the American soldiers gun them down. Had he waited another few seconds, he would not have escaped. Considering his last film, 2005's terrific The Wild Blue Yonder, an odd hybrid intercutting a long Brad Dourif monologue with footage taken from a space mission and from beneath the polar ice caps, was as wildly unconventional as anything in Herzog's oeuvre, this sudden taste for by-the-numbers filmmaking comes as a most unwelcome surprise.

The film's conclusion proves even more problematic. After his rescue, Dieter recovers at a military hospital where he is questioned about his covert mission by two CIA officials. When his friends come to visit him, they tell him that unless he escapes he will be sent to Guam for debriefing. The scene then makes an abrupt switch in tone towards straight comedy as his friends effect his escape by wheeling him out on a cart covered by a tablecloth while stalling the officials for time. This unnecessary intrusion serves as a strange and unfunny bit of comic relief, especially since the film's tension has already been resolved and no such moment of levity is needed to offset the seriousness of the proceedings. The comedy, though, soon gives way to galling sentimentality in the following scene. After his second (comic) escape, Dieter is granted a moment of glory as he is welcomed by hundreds of cheering servicemen upon his return. An officer says a few words about God and country and hands the microphone to Dieter to make a short speech. This sort of overblown feel-good conclusion seems designed to appeal to an audience trained to lap up the sort of Hollywood "prestige pictures" that foist an unearned significance upon the viewer. What prevents the scene from toppling the rest of the movie through its sheer inanity is Dieter's refusal to spout the expected patriotic rhetoric when handed the microphone. He instead delivers a koan about emptiness and fullness and the uncomprehending crowd cheers him as if he had instead offered a benediction to his country. This sole note of disharmony is all that keeps the scene from dissolving into its own nauseating sentiment.

For all the aforementioned shortcomings, the film functions quite effectively on the level of entertainment. Herzog has a sure feel for pacing and establishes a sufficient atmosphere of tension before allowing his characters to embark on their escape. When they do put their plan into action, it amounts to one of the most thrilling action sequences in recent memory. Without relying too overtly on the expected payoff of violent confrontation, Herzog deftly maneuvers his characters around the camp, confronts them with the guards, and only resorts to gunplay for a few brief moments. After Duane and Dieter escape the camp, they make their way through dense Vietcong-laden jungle towards the Mekong River, with Herzog sustaining the same remarkable level of tension as before until a rousing helicopter rescue brings the action to a close. Herzog also devotes ample attention to the unique camaraderie that sprouts up between the prisoners, particularly Dieter and Duane, a camaraderie that marks Rescue Dawn as one of the director's warmest pictures. In one scene, the two prisoners, starved to the point of emaciation, take turns listing the foods they would put in their ideal refrigerator. As Dieter objects to Duane's listing of Budweiser as the beer of choice and attempts to substitute a stein of dark lager, Duane interrupts him saying "this is my refrigerator," and then after a pause, "the beer stays". The perfect comic timing of Steve Zahn's delivery makes manifest the laughter that connected the two men even in the midst of imprisonment.

The acting is uniformly strong throughout. Christian Bale fashions Dieter as a larger-than-life figure, always completely confident in his abilities and capable of great ingenuity in the most dire situations. If Dieter seems like an impossibly heroic character, it only benefits the film, since this superhuman capacity for fulfillment creates a wholly captivating screen presence that enables and enhances the audaciousness of the escape. Steve Zahn is also terrific as the hard luck Duane, a man worn down by stomach ailments and lacking his friend's vital drive. Besides providing some of the film's finest comic moments, Zahn offers a perfect counterpoint to Dieter's heroism, a man completely overwhelmed by his circumstances and only able to escape because of his friend's efforts. The interaction between the two actors is wonderfully natural and their friendship surely represents the film's heart. If only Herzog had treated the material with the savage unconventionality it deserves, the film might have ranked among the director's triumphs. As it is, it stands as an often entertaining, appealingly effusive and ultimately frustrating work.

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