Sunday, September 10, 2006

TIFF 2006: "RESCUE DAWN"

(MASTERS)
United States, 2006, 120 minutes
Written by Werner Herzog
Directed by Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell

The prolific and ubericonoclastic Werner Herzog--does he really need an introduction?—bleeds for his art. Literally. During a recent BBC interview to promote his acclaimed documentary "Grizzly Man”, a loud pop was heard and Herzog calmly observed "someone is shooting at us". That someone was a crazed fan with a sniper rifle, who struck the filmmaker in the leg. Herzog dismissed the bullet as "insignificant" and with his wound festering, finished the interview.

One month earlier, he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash in Laurel Canyon.

So for all you non-cineastes reading this, let me put it another way: "Chuck Norris" lives because Werner Herzog lets him…

Long obsessed with, well, the obsessed and the obsessive, Herzog is an intensely physical filmmaker who has fearlessly lead his cast and crews into remote and hostile lands to tell tales of men mad with vision—Conquistador Aguirre, rubber-baron Fitzcarraldo, slave trader Cobra Verde---who inevitably end up consumed by their alien landscapes (Peru, Brazil, and Africa, respectively). He has said in an interview that his vision of a film school would include boxing and long-distance walking on the curriculum (say, five thousand miles--from Madrid to Kiev). Herzog eschews all academic highfalutin’ in the study of his work: “Academics”, he’s asserted, “is the death of cinema”.

Analysis on the Mast and Cohen level certainly won’t be required to enjoy “Rescue Dawn”, Herzog’s when-the-hell-did-he-find-the-time-to-do-this? dramatization of his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”, and his most accessible film since 1979’s “Nosferatu” remake. The collision of indie vs. Hollywood sensibilities can often produce some interesting results—consider how Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Supremacy” or Guillermo Del Toro’s “Blade 2” defied their franchise labels—but it can also spawn excruciating endurance tests like Altman’s inept cartoon schtick in “Popeye” or Coppola’s embracing of his inner Bill Keane for “Jack”. “Rescue Dawn” isn’t transcendent, unfortunately, but it’s far from the “generic” and “hackneyed” (to quote but two) stab at mainstream success that many dismissed it within hours of its Toronto world premiere. Brisk and straightforward, it offers the comforting flavours of “Behind Enemy Lines”, “Uncommon Valour”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, but with a healthy dollop of Herzog’s favorite theme of environment as psychic landscape to temper the whiff of Golan-Globus’ Cannon Films and keep the matinee derring-do suitably skewed.

Dieter Dengler (Bale) is a cocky All-American go-getter who sees military service not so much as a noble cause than a chance to have fun—see the world, fly fast, blow sh*t up. Unfortunately, it’s not the best time to get shot down over Laos during his first mission as a bomber pilot where, suffice to say, his na├»ve world view changes mighty fast. Dengler is quickly captured by Communist soldiers and brutally tortured—an ant's nest is tied to his face, he’s dragged by an ox across a village, and nearly drowned. But when he’s offered freedom in return for signing a statement denouncing his country, he refuses ("I love America…America gave me wings.").

Dengler’s thrown into a small Viet Cong prison camp deep in the jungle where he finds himself one of six American and Vietnamese POWs. He immediately befriends sensitive Duane (Zahn) and flaky Gene (Davies), their still-keen minds betrayed by their skeletal bodies and poor health from the camp’s lack of food and atrocious sanitary conditions—a daily dose of Hell from which even sleep offers no reprieve, as each evening the men are cruelly bound to each other in rows with their feet locked into stocks.

While Gene clings to the fantasy of a rescue, Dengler starts planning an escape within days of his arrival. He memorizes the schedules of the guards, dissects the layout of the camp down to its most minute details, and exploits the strengths and weaknesses of his fellow prisoners. After months of rehearsals and delays, the men make a violent play for freedom with only their tattered clothes and whatever they could grab from the camp’s weapons store. Dengler never relents in his optimism and resourcefulness, even as the fragile physical and mental states of Duane and Gene prove to be as perilous as the jungle terrain, which in its rainy season is more treacherous than any captor.

Considering Herzog’s impassioned documentaries on Kuwait (“Lessons Of Darkness”) and religious tolerance (“Wheel Of Time”), one would assume there’s an allegorical angle at play here, but “Rescue Dawn” isn’t a terribly political film—in fact, it isn’t one at all. This didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, as I’ve always regarded Herzog more of an observer than a commentator. Rather, what bothered me more was Herzog’s curious decision to streamline his main character as well: in the documentary, we learn that Dieter (who died five years ago) emigrated to the U.S. after fleeing Germany during WW2, where he became obsessed with becoming an American fighter pilot. He’d go on to fly bombing missions over Vietnam, escape from prison (pretty much as depicted here), and win the Medal Of Honour and the Navy Cross. The real-life Dieter, a bewitching contradiction of zen-like serenity and frenzied enthusiasm, is so much more endearing than Bale’s gung-ho lug, who seems to have been born to worship frosh week and “PT 109”.

With the Viet Cong functioning as “them”--anonymous baddies with about as much depth as “Assault On Precinct 13”s (the original) gang Street Thunder--the malnourished leads must carry the drama, with stoic Bale embodying charismatic resilience (and yet another dramatic weight loss) as Dieter, and little else. Zahn, nicely nuanced in Sean Astin mode, further secures his future as a reliable character actor unencumbered by vanity or method-y indulgence. By stark contrast, Jeremy Davies must’ve wandered into the jungle right from the set of “Solaris” in what-has-become his “official” screen persona--all lank hair and squinting eyes and loosey-goosey limb movements like Charles Manson on morphine (I wonder if Herzog ever fantasized about shooting him as he did Klaus Kinski).

Herzog has always found poetry in the horrible, the apocalyptic, and the doomed, so it’s no surprise that the tense and unflinching “Rescue Dawn” is beautifully shot and scored, and perhaps destined to be no more than a future relic from a rare period in which he was not looking to subvert or deconstruct. In his intro, the filmmaker (visibly saddened by the loss of his mother that very day) lauded his subject (whose widow and son were in the audience) as an embodiment of everything he admires about the American spirit (something that will surely irk his leftist admirers) and while Herzog the accidental LA-player has given his friend a fine tribute—the remote German captured him first, and best.

-Robert J. Lewis