Monday, October 25, 2010

"Rescue Dawn" - I promised quality, not quantity, in this blog!

I've had an injury to deal with, and tons of work. But I'll have 1 a week for my 2-year anniversary, and I'll start my late push with a good movie. I won't say "Rescue Dawn" is mandatory - just that it's a rewarding character study set as a 'Nam POW film. Since that business is now out of the way, let's begin with the words I wanted to begin this review with (but didn't deserve to because I'm posting late):

As we join him, the last big moment in Dieter Dengler's life was spent sitting with his fellow pilots in the US . They watched a film on pilot procedures, laughing and making jokes while the footage covered "Downed in Enemy Lines" tactics. After their briefing, they flew off to attack enemy positions in Southeast Asia. Dieter's plane got crippled.

And so an awful experience plays out beautifully.

"Rescue Dawn" is very much like Vietnam films you've seen before. Yet the words "directed by Werner Herzog" mean you won't get a typical war story. The experienced and skilled artist's hand shows itself in some surreal moments, like Bale's brief aside while resting at a cave-pool. If you watch arthouse cinema, you know to either these scenes flow through you or to think about what they mean in the film. Herzog isn't heavy-handed about it, though, so you watch a fairly straight-forward and familiar picture.

But "RD" is much better than the average movie. In themes and in characters, it is strong - a pretty-looking picture expressing a lot about human virtue and weakness (both physical and mental), power, and the strength of the human spirit (not as corny as it sounds). As the credits rolled, I was shocked by how much Herzog stuck with POW/'nam film convention; I wasn't shocked by how well the effort turned out, nor the strength of its ideas.

Compassion, desperation, and determination are the dominant emotions here. Beauty flourishes and dies in front of you, many times; and so does ugliness. You get to see a lot of both in this picture.

Repeatedly, the values of a man like Dieter Dengler are contrasted - and deflated - by the practicalities of life. A proud American pilot, Dengler refuses to denounce his country; within minutes, we learn that he's soiled himself after being tied to the ground for a day... Your body just doesn't care about noble intentions. Sometimes, people stand together, helping the weakest in the group even though it slows everyone down.

The struggle within and among people remains a constant element, despite our hero's virtues. The POWs that the lead joins can dislike or begrudge each other. They can get pushed to the brink, but their little society enforces some professionalism. They common hope for freedom means that some survive their awful lot because of the companionship alone. And yet sometimes you're chained inches away from a man with severe, nightly, bowel troubles.

These issues are worse since captivity and cruelty tend to damage a person - Davies' typical nervous energy seems like full-blown crackhouse nut-jobery. Zahn often acts like he receives unearthly orders from a dog. When things are at their darkest, the protagonist talks to and interacts with visions of a dead friend. The surprise party (you'll understand) feels sad, yet pretty - and yet truly insane.

Though everything is top-rate, Christian Bale's stellar Dieter pulls you in. It's not just the actor's ability and charisma, it's in the character itself. Dieter Dengler is a model of virtue. He's also a perfect version of what kids dream of being - clever, athletic, upstanding, and heroic.

He's a pragmatist, too. When captured, Dengler immediately takes a humble, passive, by-the-rules approach. He says what he feels is right and insists on decent treatment, shutting up when he's threatened. He never screams defiance at his angry overseers. He shouts a mild or sarcastic reprimand when they act indecently.

Seriously, dude, it's cool. I Am The Night, but I'm not a jerk about it.

The oddest thing about "Rescue Dawn" is that 9 years earlier, Herzog released his semi-documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." In a very real sense, Werner's picking up his own spare, but he chose a good subject: Dieter was 9 when he found out his dream was becoming a pilot. He learned this when he stared out his window to see an angry USAF jockey flying right at his house. So Bale must have been having flashbacks to his first film, "Empire of the Sun." The two childhood visions are pretty damn close.

That pilot did destroy Dengler's hometown, Dresden, yet the boy bore no grudges, becoming a US citizen. He did everything he could to achieve his ambition. He even chose jobs that taught him more about tools and machinery, so he could fix plane equipment. Or pick locks... Is there anything better than a person who hunts out their dreams?

If anything, Dieter is almost too good. He's practical, but with an attitude - cocky but approachable. He's terribly honorable. He's a cool, smart, non-malicious bloke who's determined to keep a positive attitude and get free. Somewhere along the line, he becomes a patriotic yet respectful serviceman who gets shot down during the Vietnam Conflict.

This film might be most similar to "Bat 21." Both were low on violence and high on solid acting. This war flick gets more intense than the Hackman/Glover gem, yet it's not an action picture. Herzog's work is concentrated and realistic - in the end, "Rescue Dawn" is a very powerful character study. In large part, this is because of the additional players... It's one thing to watch a person deal with their own horrors. It's another when they must also support a bunch of hopeless lunatics.

Even folks who antagonize and resent each other still have moments of sympathy, compassion. The touching moments of tenderness and emotional support relieves some tension for the audience; it also makes these men much more real - they're flawed, but not so self-destructive as to tear themselves apart from the inside. In a double-handful of well-acted scenes, "Rescue Dawn" conveys both the advantages and vulnerabilities that arise from trust.

At least it's a multicultural cast. The majority of the natives never speak a word of English, but two of the POW's are US-allied Vietnamese. They have an equal say in the lives of their fellow prisoners. Thankfully, they have a real impact here, even with a language barrier.

You'll be floored by the array of setbacks faced by the unfortunate prisoners. Nature, animals, luck, allies, military enemies, their own bodies - any and all are capricious and step in to kick these men while they're down. It's like a police brutality video that ends with the victim getting a piano dropped on their broken body.

Jeremy Davies' thin-ness is rather repulsive when you see it. It's a little more jarring than Bale's own emaciation here, and in "The Machinist."

It's unfortunate that this gorgeous scenery has to be used to tell such a harsh story. There are so many lush forest-covered hills and mountains, great wide skies overlooking a vivid jungle. The colors also change quite often; The setting makes green a dominant tone, but yellows and browns counter-balanace them so the eye never gets tired. One of the best images might be the 6 trapped men watching a beautiful dog lap at their empty plates. This itself gets a nice callback when the food is so scarce that the dog walks on its hind legs to no avail.

The camera movements are extremely in-your-face, guerilla-documentary style. It's ten minutes of "Top Gun" that turns into a passive, invisible camera stalking a lone crash survivor. The way it follows our hero might suggest that the camera is "on the side" of the natives.

Yet the look of the picture is in contrast to what it shows: Christian Bale as Dengler, a pilot who is constantly in extremely vulnerable positions. Sometimes, he is on his knees in front of people who would maim or kill him at any excuse. Sometimes, he is trapped in a cabin with 5 other POWs. Sometimes he's bound to those others in a way that made me laugh from its primal spite. I've never seen a POW film where the prisoners were so completely and utterly helpless.

The VC didn't take well to Patrick Bateman, psychotic banker.

The extent of the deprivation is also pretty harrowing. The POW's ultimate fate hinges on whether their captors can even afford to feed them any longer. Even when escape is possibility, there's a real challenge to hiding and keeping supplies like boots and food. And while fleeing through the jungle can be extremely perilous, it's all the more difficult when your physical condition is poor.

Our captured soldiers are so far gone - even Dieter as the new arrival - that it is a luxury and a privilege to smell the wrapper of a 2 year-old bacon package. The memory of bacon is their highest commodity - THAT'S desperation.

Herzog's odd touches are easier to spot in the editing. Near the end, Dieter captures a snake. After he's got the head safely secured, the camera pans up to the sky, and the screen fades to black. Then the sky reappears, and the camera pans down to our lead tearing into the snake - but it's only a few seconds after he nabbed it! Why the cut? Artistically-minded directors like Herzog can explain the choice, and if the director was an unknown, I would be more skeptical of it. So I let the moment flow through me...

I might be most impressed by the open approach Herzog took to the film's emotional content. As Nicholas Meyer once said, "life is full of a range of emotions" - misery, elation, desire, disappointment all flow in and out of each day, and of many moments. The director included it all here, and it helps make the film more realistic and engrossing.

"Rescue Dawn" is very good, pretty, and well-acted. It's not necessarily a must-see, but certainly a "should-see" if you watch more than 40 films each year.

This is not the team you want escaping from an army, right?

Extra Credit - Don't read til after you've seen the movie!

Herzog's particular sensibilities do appear in the editing, and in the way this particular version of a 'Nam tale plays out. Of course, he lets them rear back and let loose in scenes like the one in the cave. "The quick have their sleepwalkers, and so do the dead." It's 28 seconds, and Bale is the only person not in a state of repose. It's too forceful to discount, but it has no effect on the narrative - and it's hard to see a change in the character...

So does this moment serve a purpose? Herzog himself describes the moment as a misfire, saying it needed to be 3 seconds longer. He also defines it as a moment where the film transitions from constant action and events "to a more interior film." It's purpose, then, is something I can guess had nothing to do with the character or the plot. It's there to prepare the audience for that shift from being a picture about external things (beatings, running, rescue choppers) to being movie about internal things (enclosed captivity, starvation, and pending insanity).

My own thoughts might've gotten close without Werner's comment. But I'm very glad I didn't have to guess.

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