Her­zog re­turns with ‘Res­cue Dawn’

Film tack­les POW ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the Viet­nam con­flict

The Covington News - - NEWTON @ PLAY -

When go­ing to see a war film, es­pe­cially one set dur­ing the Viet­nam War, you learn to brace your­self for shock­ing acts of vi­o­lence, in­hu­man­ity, ni­hilis­tic de­prav­ity and the un­rav­el­ing of any sort of a moral sys­tem. At times, it al­most be­comes a pornog­ra­phy of tragedy and vi­o­lence — show­ing things to shock and tit­il­late the spec­ta­tor au­di­ence.

“ Res­cue Dawn,” thank­fully, is not one of th­ese. Tem­pered by di­rec­tor Werner Her­zog’s ten­dency to blur the bound­aries be­tween truth and fiction, “ Res­cue Dawn” feels at times like a doc­u­men­tary, al­low­ing the viewer breath­ing room to ab­sorb the story of Di­eter Den­gler, a Ger­man- born Amer­i­can fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos on his very first bomb­ing mis­sion in Fe­bru­ary 1966.

He was tor­tured and held at a prison camp and, with the other Amer­i­can and for­eign pris­on­ers- of- war, es­caped, sur­viv­ing long enough to be res­cued by Amer­i­can air­craft 22 days later.

The open­ing of the movie even looks a bit like a doc­u­men­tary un­til you get to a dreamy se­quence jux­ta­pos­ing grainy 60s’ era footage of bomb­ing mis­sions — which could be recre­ations, it’s hard to tell — with a lush or­ches­tral sound­track. Large pieces of flam­ing de­bris, houses and pos­si­bly bod­ies leap out with the grace of chore­ographed bal­let dancers as the bombs ex­plode in silent, deadly slow mo­tion. This is not the first war movie to use this de­vice to high­light an ironic beauty amid death and de­struc­tion, but it is still ef­fec­tive.

The film starts with a fresh­scrubbed Den­gler, played by Chris­tian Bale, prep­ping on the ship be­fore his first mis­sion, un­wit­tingly gath­er­ing the items and knowl­edge that will be ei­ther priceless or use­less to him later on.

We’re thrown into a steamy jun­gle world when his plane is shot down and crashes into a rice paddy.

Den­gler, no MacGyver by any means, has to quickly ad­just to his new sit­u­a­tion and es­capes but is even­tu­ally caught by the com­mu­nist Pa­thet Lao group.

He’s tor­mented, shot at, beaten, toyed with and even­tu­ally held in a prison camp where he’s the “ new kid” in a rag­tag group of Amer­i­can and for­eign POWs, some of whom have been im­pris­oned for more than two years and are los­ing their grip on re­al­ity.

The pris­on­ers, al­most hu­mor­ously, come off more like a bunch of cranky cast­aways on a desert is­land or bick­er­ing old men in a nurs­ing home than pris­on­ers of war. They gripe about each other’s idio­syn­cra­sies, (“ if I have to hear about Ore­gon one more time!”) and group co­he­sive­ness is ten­u­ous. All are skin and bones, and to watch the ac­tual ac­tors waste away is vis­cer­ally painful.

Den­gler be­gins plot­ting a group es­cape al­most im­me­di­ately but ends up do­ing most of the heavy work him­self. He and an­other POW, Duane Martin, es­cape into the jun­gle, where they have as much to fight from na­ture as from hu­mans, in­clud­ing wa­ter­falls, mud­slides, leeches and star­va­tion.

Their re­la­tion­ship is the most heart­break­ing, filled with broth­erly ten­der­ness. As bro­ken as they both are, Den­gler finds the en­ergy to present Martin with “ gifts” and to take care of him. When Martin is be­headed by com­bat­ive vil­lagers, Den­gler is haunted by his voice and his ghost.

On the brink of death by star­va­tion and ex­haus­tion, Den­gler is even­tu­ally spot­ted and res­cued by Amer­i­can air­craft 22 days af­ter his es­cape.

The no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult di­rec­tor was a great ad­mirer and friend of Den­gler, who died in 2001 from Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease, and even made a 1997 doc­u­men­tary about him, “ Lit­tle Di­eter Needs to Fly.”

Res­cue Dawn is a larg­erthan- life ver­sion of Den­gler’s story, tak­ing lib­er­ties with the truth in or­der to achieve what Her­zog of­ten re­ferred to as the “ ec­static truth.”

“ I’m not an ac­coun­tant of facts,” he told Film­maker Mag­a­zine in 2007. “ I’ve al­ways been af­ter an ec­stasy of truth, an il­lu­mi­na­tion of truth.”

Some of th­ese lib­er­ties in­clude turn­ing Den­gler into the lone, per­se­ver­ing hero of the prison break, com­plete with a Hol­ly­wood- ized, feel- good end­ing, un­usual for Her­zog, where Den­gler’s char­ac­ter is cheered and car­ried on the shoul­ders of his ship­mates when he re­turns to his ship.

Th­ese lib­er­ties have up­set the fam­i­lies of two of the other POWs who say their loved ones were por­trayed falsely, as de­scribed on a Web site cre­ated to air their griev­ances, www. res­cuedawn­thetruth. com. In par­tic­u­lar, they crit­i­cize the por­trayal of Eu­gene DeBruin, played by Jeremy Davies, as un­sta­ble, weak, and cow­ardly — a char­ac­ter easy to hold in con­tempt and a foil for the strong op­ti­mism of Den­gler.

An­other of Her­zog’s re­oc­cur­ring themes is man against na­ture, and you def­i­nitely feel that here as Den­gler and Martin phys­i­cally wres­tle with the jun­gle that threat­ens to swal­low them up in a mil­lion and one ways.

In the end, the movie is ef­fec­tive as a story and re­fresh­ing to watch in its sim­plic­ity and re­straint. I would rec­om­mend it even to folks who don’t nor­mally watch war films.

Grade: B+

Michelle Kim

Film critic

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