Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rescue Dawn (Herzog, 2006)

For his most recent film, Werner Herzog returns to a subject that he covered in the 1997 documentary (unseen by me) called Little Dieter Needs to Fly: a German-American fighter pilot who is shot down over Laos in an ill-fated bombing run and then organizes an escape from the POW camp where he is being held prisoner. It is the kind of film that must have seemed like a dream project for actors Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. They would have the opportunity to grow their hair out and film in an exotic location with a legendary director who would no doubt have high expectations, but, all the same, would allow them performances that bordered on indulgent. When you’re going nuts and starving in a Laotian prison camp, who’s to say how much is too much? For Herzog fans, the premise may seem promising as well. After all, hasn’t the director excelled at finding poetry in the way that man can be swallowed up by the wilderness?

Rescue Dawn starts out promisingly enough with an opening sequence that shows the view from a plane as bombs are dropped from above and incinerate what lies beneath. What is odd about this scene is that there are few detectable manmade targets and so the effect touches upon Herzog’s pet theme of man vs. nature by showing us fiery explosions that plume amidst trees and wilderness, weapons directed seemingly at the Earth itself. Unfortunately, much of what follows resembles something that could have been directed by Ridley or Tony Scott. Some may not consider that to be such a bad thing. For me, it is a plunge from the sublime into the banal. Indeed, the early scenes of Bale’s cocky fighter pilot watching a military training film alongside his Navy buddies resembles nothing so much as the latter Scott’s own Top Gun. Our expectation is that once the exposition is over and Herzog ventures into the wilderness, he will be able to find some kind of underlying philosophical significance in Dengler’s arduous journey, some kind of insight or magic that only he can offer. Unfortunately, the tale never grows to be much more than what it appears on the surface. It is the story of a man who is captured, endures imprisonment for a while and then escapes. Nothing more. It is frequently well-shot and occasionally well-acted (with the more subdued performances of Zahn and Davies outshining Bale’s off-pitch bravado), but never particularly thought-provoking or inspiring. Herzog has made films much worse than this and he has made films much better than this, but I can’t recall a film he has made that is as safe as this. From one of the cinema’s great risk-takers, Rescue Dawn is quite possibly the last thing I expected: passable entertainment.



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