Acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is a spellbinding vision of America from another age, like a perfect relic trapped in amber. An expression of Herzog's ongoing interest in the limits of human endurance, the film shows how futility gives way to fortitude. Herzog's first American narrative feature is both an art-house take on the all-American action film and a partial revision and expansion of his own canon. Where he has often explored the German character, Herzog delivers in Rescue Dawn an homage of sorts to American will and optimism, but with an outsider's perspective that celebrates such notions without the usual patriotic chest-thumping.
Reminiscent of such Herzog iconoclastic wonders as Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; or the more recent documentary Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn returns to Herzogian themes of the wilderness as a human confrontation with self. He loves showing men grappling with the twofold bounty and terror of the wild.
Subject to Herzog's own peculiar, elongated rhythms and long takes, Rescue Dawn could have just as easily been made in the art-house and American independent heyday of the 1970s. Though it traffics in some of the constants of war films – camaraderie, escape, etc. – Rescue Dawn suggests the existential, romantic confrontations of man and wilderness that so beguiled other filmmakers of Herzog's generation. Like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) and John Boorman (Deliverance), who have also grappled with a previous generation's idea of what makes a man and the foundation of cinema, Herzog's films have consistently imagined how intellect and spirit transcend physical and moral hardship.
For Rescue Dawn, Herzog takes a previous real-life subject and makes him fictitious. His 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, focused on the German-born Navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner of war Dieter Dengler. Here Dengler is portrayed by Christian Bale, part of a boisterous group of flyboys anticipating their secret mission into Laos to take out enemy targets. With the explosive energy and wide grins of soldiers from a vintage Hollywood World War II drama, these fighter pilots set off on the bombing run like Boy Scouts anticipating a first campout.
But we meet Dieter just as his wings are clipped. Defined by his dream of flight, Dieter is almost instantly grounded on that mission into Laos. Throughout the film, Dieter suggests nothing so much as a bird cruelly subject to the does-not-compute laws of earthbound captivity in a Laotian POW camp deep in the jungle. Alongside a group of American POWs, Dieter transforms from specimen of wholesome, giddy masculinity into a gaunt, malnourished prisoner.
If Herzog's most famous muse, Klaus Kinski, has been defined by his extroverted insanity, Bale has often been defined by his characters' internalized angst: the Dieter-esque emaciated Trevor Reznik of The Machinist, the frustrated glam fan of Velvet Goldmine or the controlled serial killer of American Psycho. It is refreshing to see an actor so rightly revered for his brooding performances express such a believable, nerdy optimism and exuberance. Having previously played an imprisoned boy who dreams of flight in 1987's Empire of the Sun, Bale grasps Dieter's plucky character and almost pig-headed determination.
While Dieter represents a will that extends beyond the visible reality before him, fellow POWs such as Gene (Jeremy Davies) represent the human desire for some divine end to suffering. Symbolic of his dream of some miraculous transcendence, Gene worships a can of frank and beans like others might kneel before the Virgin Mary. Another American captive, Duane (Steve Zahn), warns Dieter that the jungle, not the prison, is the real obstacle to be escaped. But to Herzog and his protagonist, life's surest trap is the human mind. Offering the key to unlock them from their fears, Dieter frees his fellow POWs from captivity. They begin to horde rice and slip out of their handcuffs each night, practicing for their eventual escape.
More often than not, American films about Vietnam celebrate the spectacle of war: the exploding poppies of napalm, the excruciating sadism, the ruthless enemies. Despite the presence of such similar traits, there is a sense of calm that pervades Rescue Dawn. Much of that serenity reflects Herzog's preference for still, visual reveries and the surreal moments of calm within chaos. Captors show their human side, prone to crack a smile or slip the prisoners some rice. There are moments of graphic and unimaginable torture, but something in Herzog's or Dieter's worldview refuses to flatly vilify and demonize. Klaus Badelt's hauntingly subdued musical score helps lend even brutality a soothing equilibrium.
Released amid the growing concern about the American presence in Iraq, Rescue Dawn offers a quietly compassionate vision of Dieter as a optimistic emblem of America; this had a strange effect on the preview audience gathered to see the film. For many in the audience, Rescue Dawn undoubtedly rekindles an idea of America many have forgotten in the post-Vietnam era, when the degradation of native values and politicians' guile have allowed America's virtue to plummet in the world's eyes.
There was pin-drop silence throughout the film and subdued applause at its conclusion. Later came that signature soft, shuffling exit from the theater to signal a transformed audience still in the emotional grip of Herzog's film. Not only in tone, but in effect, Herzog's film recalls another past, of sublime world cinema in which directors could create works of spiritual resonance able to float above debased reality.