By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Rescue Dawn,” MGM, 2007]
If Dieter Dengler didn’t exist, Werner Herzog would have had to invent him. As it is, he has reinvented him, in a way, in his new film “Rescue Dawn.” Dengler was a German-American who dreamed of becoming a pilot ever since the day Allied aircraft buzzed his home and destroyed the little village in which he grew up. He emigrated to the US and joined the Navy just in time to serve in the Vietnam War. On his very first mission into Asia, he was shot down, captured and imprisoned in a Laotian P.O.W. camp. As a man who found his purpose in life in the face of death and who tested his mettle against the raw destructive fury of nature, Dengler fits in seamlessly with the subjects of classic Herzog creations like “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and the director’s most recent hit, the documentary “Grizzly Man.”
Dengler’s story began as a documentary too; the 1997’s film “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” But according to the story Herzog recounts in “Rescue Dawn”‘s press notes, Dengler had not been completely candid with Herzog when telling him the stories that formed the basis for “Little Dieter,” particularly about the conflicts that existed in the prison camp between the P.O.W.s. Though Dengler passed away in 2001, Herzog resolved to retell his great adventure. In a strange way, the added information Dengler provided Herzog before his death might make the fictional “Rescue Dawn” more truthful than the non-fiction “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” a very Herzogian notion indeed.
This time, Dengler is played by Christian Bale, perhaps the greatest acting chameleon of his generation. Though most of Bale’s best turns in the past came as very dark characters Borden in “The Prestige” or Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” his greatest asset as Little Dieter is the mischievous smile and the relentless optimism he flashes whenever hatching another escape plan. In other words, he’s a totally unique creation, separate from everything Bale’s done before. These are the skills that make him a great Batman: you believe this guy could slip into a role so completely that even his closest friends wouldn’t recognize him he does it in movie after movie.
Bale’s matched step for step by his ensemble, particularly Jeremy Davies as Gene from Eugene, Oregon and Steve Zahn as Duane, who becomes Dieter’s best friend and closest ally. We’ve come to expect performances of this caliber from Davies, who is something of a chameleon himself, but Zahn’s performance, wounded and sad with barely a hint of the scruffy humor he typically brings to his roles, is the true revelation. Dieter intends to escape from the first day he lands at the camp in Laos, but his fellow inmates, whose souls have been crushed by years of harsh treatment, persuade him to stay, at least until the monsoon season. Without water, they warn, he’d die in two days wandering through the brush. “The jungle,” Duane warns, “is the prison.” So, we slowly realize, are the minds of men who have become resigned to their fate.
I’d never seen “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” which worried me before I saw the film but now strikes me as a blessing in disguise. Not knowing the details of Dengler’s capture and escape meant I didn’t feel the urge to constantly compare documentary to fiction; it also meant that his struggle for freedom felt a good deal more suspenseful (despite knowing the ultimate outcome). Dieter’s story reminds me a bit of one of those horror movies where a bunch of people are supposed to die and don’t, and then God spends the rest of the movie trying to even the scales. By the end of “Rescue Dawn,” Dengler should be dead, many times over. And yet the determined bastard simply refuses to accept defeat. For everything else he sees in Dengler, maybe Herzog ultimately admires this quality the most.
“Rescue Dawn” opens in New York and L.A. on July 4th (official site).