Friday, November 30, 2007

Rescue Dawn

What a harrowing, draining film this was. Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors, and is perfectly suited to this, the story of Dieter Dengler, an American pilot shot down in Laos back when the Vietnam war was still being called a confrontation, and who escaped a P.O.W. camp and a treacherous jungle to make his way back home. Indeed, Herzog is so perfectly attuned to this story that this is the second time he’s filmed it; a decade ago, he made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary featuring Dengler himself telling his story.

I didn’t see that film, but this filmic retelling, with Christian Bale as Dengler, has a great deal of power to it. I have this listed as a war film, but there’s virtually no combat to be had in this; rather there’s virtually no soldier-versus-soldier combat to be had, instead giving us people on both sides of the conflict just being relentlessly beaten down by the environment around them, and by time itself. As soon as Dengler arrives at the camp, he starts talking with his fellow inmates about plans of escape, before being told he would have to wait until the rainy season for any chance of survival, which is five to six months away. Half the film is spent with the cast slowly wasting away at the camp, with food so scarce that even the guards are hungry enough to begin considering executing all the prisoners and claiming they tried to escape, just so they could go home and try to find food there. Bale is no stranger to weight loss for a movie role, as his 63 pound loss for his horrifying role in The Machinist holds the known record for weight loss by any actor for a role. It was interesting to see Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies as fellow inmates, though, both of which had been there months before his arrival and who are basically broken-down husks more than people. Davies in particular looks barely there, as his shirtless physique resembles a concentration camp survivor more than anything else.

Eventually, of course, they make their escape, and Bale and Zahn strike off together in search of rescue. As was predicted by Zahn, this is every bit as perilous as the camp itself was. If there is a constant theme in Herzog’s work, it is that nature is an all-powerful, chaotic beast that is fully capable of destroying us if we are not constantly on our guard, and that theme is fully on display in the jungles of Laos. They are continually beset by the likes of mudslides, leeches, patrols, and the ever-present curse of starvation, which wears them down so much that they eventually make the foolhardy mistake of exposing themselves to a villager in the hopes that he will let them have some food. The ending is obviously not very much in doubt, since Dieter’s story would never have been known if he didn’t make it back (indeed, Little Dieter Needs to Fly would have been particularly hard to make), but the journey he takes along the way is just brutal and agonizing.

Rating: *** ½

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