Werner Herzog is famous for his almost B-movie disregard for special effects and slow-motion over-theatrics. His better films (Aguire the Wrath of God, Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo, etc.) have instead relied upon the sheer scale of natural setting, escalating madness and human isolation to convey his ideas. At his best, he can put the viewer directly into the impossible surroundings of his mad-man characters, whether it be Klaus Kinski or Timothy Treadwell. At his worst, he can put you in the car driving home half-way through a really boring movie about a Jewish wrestler-strongman guy (from what I can remember). Thankfully, his lapses into the latter are rarely the case.
Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Denglers' real-life imprisonment and escape from a Laotian prison camp in the run-up to full blown conflict in Vietnam. He is the only American survivor of the Laotian camps as detailed in Herzog's 1997 Documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. His story is friggin incredible.
Christian Bale and the usually comedic Steve Zahn form an on-screen friendship as genuine as I can remember. Bale once again makes Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise look like zit-faced Degrassi Junior High actors and Zahn should be nominated for best supporting role for his incredibly real take on a man who has had the life sucked out of him, but not quite all of it.
But the most pleasant surprise of all has to be Herzog. His matter-of-fact style is still at the forefront, but the film almost has a decidedly sunny bent about it that I have never before seen him display. The jungle scenes have an awesome majesty (no surprise here, as Herzog has a storied history of jungle films), but he almost always balances the claustrophobic jungle-struggles with bits of humor or almost religious appreciation of the incredible natural landscape. He never lets the joy sink out of the film and pays scant attention to the obvious torture that Dengler endured. Many contemporary directors would undoubtedly be lured into the trap of showing, with great glee and close-up detail, the various cliched and obvious offenses.
As a fan of Herzog, I was struck with the tone of the film. There is no introspective moment of the realization of the horrors inflicted upon innocent indigenous peoples of Laos. No scenes of guilty stuffed-suit white senators drooling over the prospects of slaughtering more innocents (I find it sad to say that I fully expect modern movies to preach to the viewer constantly about the various and sundry evils of our country), but Herzog makes an obvious choice not to take the conventional route. Instead he tells an inspiring story, stripped of bullshit and in all its patriotic glory. That's also why it won't get any awards.
Pickled fish rating: Four kipper snacks out of four. Best flick yet in 2007.