Werner Herzog has bushwhacked a marvelously unmappable career for over 40 years, pursuing the stories of men who pit their wills against nature. In fact, the German filmmaker’s decades-long obsession with the beauty and hubris of masculine determination — from Aguirre, the Wrath of God in 1972 to Grizzly Man in 2005 — can be seen as his own essential life’s work. In the same way Timothy Treadwell staked his life to the point of madness on a celebration of bears, Herzog is magnetically drawn to the fissure between fact and myth to find out why a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. He loves the winner and the loser with equal curiosity.
But of all the men he’s measured, none, it seems, has moved him quite like Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and held in a jungle prison by Pathet Lao soldiers. That Dengler managed to escape, through a combination of resourcefulness, strength of spirit, and sheer luck — and then to find rescue — dazzled the filmmaker when he made his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. (After receiving a Navy Cross for his heroism, Dengler continued to fly as a test pilot; he died of ALS in 2001 at the age of 62.) But something about the man, with his positive attitude even in the midst of what others might reasonably accept as hopeless continued to intrigue Herzog. His fellow countryman, Herzog has said, embodies everything the filmmaker loves about America: ”Courage, perseverance, optimism, self-reliance…. He was the quintessential immigrant into America — a young man who arrived with a great dream and came to represent the best of the American spirit.”
So little Werner needs to tell the story again — dramatized this time, with a brilliant Christian Bale doing Dengler’s memory fine justice in Rescue Dawn. Flying low under the radar while louder blockbuster contraptions shriek through the pop cultural skies, the movie is an exciting stealth weapon on many levels. It is, for starters, an amazing story, all the more so for being true: how the pilot was captured and tortured, how he rallied other American and Thai POWs to escape with him (trained as a locksmith, he fashioned a pick to unshackle them), and how, with his last ounce of strength (he gnawed on dead snake for sustenance) he flagged down his Air Force rescuers, who at first thought he might be Vietcong.
But just as exciting — maybe even more so, for those who love the medium and, especially, the uplift of the great-escape genre — Rescue Dawn is a triumphant Werner Herzog movie. It’s a mature distillation, really, of what the director does at his best, clearing the path of any unnecessary decoration (no prisoner-to-prisoner chat about sweethearts back home, no political commentary, no emotionally detached authorial voice-over in sing-songy accents) to let excellent actors reenact incredible maneuvers real men once really did. Besides, nobody stalks the wild like the man who made Fitzcarraldo, a naturalist who respects the jungle as a snarl of life and death in which God and the Devil seem to share landscaping credit.
It’s no news that Bale is an actor who thrives on the Outward Bound school of character preparation; mastering the technicalities of privation are simple as pie (or a starvation diet of no pie) for the star of Batman Begins and The Machinist. Bale’s surprise in Rescue Dawn is the lightness of being — the modest, good-natured grace — that he locates in Dengler even under the most agonizing conditions. I’ve never seen the actor look more at home with his own taut charisma, or put his sinewy physicality to more rewarding use.
Nor has anyone ever seen Steve Zahn quite like this — frightened, despairing, and complexly adult as fellow prisoner Duane Martin, a U.S. helicopter pilot whose pessimistic plan, before meeting Dengler, was to wait for rescue he never really thought would come. The sweet-faced, shambling actor from That Thing You Do! and Sahara is a revelation as a man afraid to hope. (A third American POW, played by Jeremy Davies with the twitches and finger wiggles he characteristically employs to signify weakness of character, is more risk-averse.) As Martin comes to trust Dengler’s plan, Zahn and Bale enact an enthralling masculine duet. Out of a harrowing story set in a foreign thicket, Herzog has found American beauty.