BY NEIL FAUERSO
OKAY, I’m biased. Werner Herzog is in many ways my favorite director. His heyday running from Aguirre: Wrath of the God in 1973 to Cobra Verde in 1987 is the greatest 15-year stretch of any director I know. In this time Herzog made, in addition to aforementioned: Heart of Glass, Stroszek, Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo, and Where the Green Ants Dream in the process weaving an unrivaled landscape of existential dread and dreams, sacred profanity, and the cruel and gorgeous machinations of nature. Since then, Herzog has mainly made documentaries that, while often remarkable, lack the spiritual and emotional depth charge of his earlier work. His last foray into dramatic film, 2001’s Invincible, was the absolute nadir of his career, a completely phony and stilted “true fable” about a Jewish strong man in Germany during the Nazi regime. So it is with great joy that Rescue Dawn marks Herzog’s dramatic return and the most emotionally affecting film of the summer.
A narrative remake of an earlier Herzog documentary, Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an optimistic and friendly German-born Air Force pilot, who on his first mission in Vietnam is shot down, captured, and imprisoned under unfathomable circumstances. How Dieter survives and escapes makes up the bulk of this simple and gripping film. Herzog is very matter of fact in his delivery and approach. The POW scenes are the most naturalistic and plaintive I’ve ever seen. Dieter’s camaraderie with his fellow prisoners is deeply lived in and believable. Buoyed by the stellar performances by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn, prisoners of war have never seemed more vulnerable and real.
And then there’s Christian Bale. I’ve widely believed Bale to be the actor of his generation, and in Rescue Dawn he confirms it. Bale nails the shifty, faint German intonations of Dieter’s accent, his quiet resilience, his unflagging optimism. What could have been a lofty and sentimental performance ends up being awe-inspiring and human.
Herzog is notorious/famous for his loose, naturalistic style and it works fabulously here. The beautiful, lush photography is tempered by the documentary-like editing and framing. Herzog effortlessly captures the banal cruelty and desperation of warfare and the unrelenting pressure of the jungle. Rescue Dawn becomes both serene and nail-biting, an exhaustive, cathartic film.