Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
Men are insatiable beasts. It is normal for us to have an innate tendency to push our natural boundaries and reject the limitations that have been imposed on us. Filmmaker Werner Herzog is not interested in man's plain insatiability but in a more defined and refined context of such normal human characteristic. He is interested in men whose desire to break natural limitations has reached the point of obsession. Herzog's cinematic heroes and anti-heroes are not only insatiable beasts, they are also stubborn to the point of exhaustion, insanity and death. Yet despite Herzog's heroes eccentric approach to this most peculiar of human characteristics, they still remain painfully familiar, uncomfortably similar to even the most normal of us. Don Lope de Aguirre with his maddened need to penetrate the South American jungle (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972), Brian Fitzcarraldo with his self-imposed defiant task of building an opera house deep in the jungles of Peru (Fitzcarraldo, 1982), Dr. Graham Norrington with his resilient bids to build a hot-air balloon to navigate above the canopies of the Paraguayan jungles (White Diamond, 2004), and Timothy Treadwell with his foolish and fatal attempt to live with a family of grizzly bears (Grizzly Man, 2005) are only a few of Herzog's subjects that evidently stray from what is considered as norm but are still distinctly and definitely human, not mere caricatures of extreme eccentricities.
Another is Dieter Dengler, German-born pilot for the United States air force who was shot down from his plane, made prisoners-of-war, eventually escaped and rescued. Dengler is the subject of Herzog's earlier documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). Herzog's rare effort in big-budgeted Hollywood filmmaking Rescue Dawn is a fictionalized version of Dengler's plane crash and succeeding capture, torture, and imprisonment for many months by Laotian communists. The typically uncompromising director has been accused by many of his fans and critics of having succumbed to blockbuster mentality as Rescue Dawn seems to cling on tired plot conventions and indulge in what feels like pro-American yet anti-war didactics, the current fad in American cinema nowadays. I disagree with that assessment since in the grander scheme of things, Rescue Dawn is that infrequent Hollywood-funded movie that exceeds both commercial and artistic expectations.
It starts with a factoid about the American air force secretly bombing select areas in the Laos-Vietnam border before showing a clip of villages exploding from the point of view of someone in the bomber plane. It's a wonderful clip made remarkable in the context Herzog makes use of it. While the clip visually details destruction that is both brazen and atrocious especially in a post-Vietnam War context, it is used in the film to showcase the alluring grace and beauty in flight. The endless jungles and the villages that dot the green landscape are lorded over from such vantage point above. The explosions in gorgeous slow motion are like flowers blossoming against the hostilities of nature down below. With that, Herzog gives you a glimpse of rationality behind Dengler's obsession. Flight is a potent drug against the world and its malignant and often persistent hold on humankind.
So when Dengler's plane is shot, he forgoes escaping from the crashing plane as advised by his superiors, and instead crashes with it. He emerges from the fiery remains of his plane, is greeted with gunshots by the villagers and chased into the depths of the Laotian jungle. Herzog, at once, confirms Dengler's determination and stubbornness thus assuring this fictional version of Dengler a rightful place in the director's pantheon of quirky characters. Dengler then explores the jungle while trying to evade the Laotian searchers, utilizing every bit of survival tip he learned from the videos being shown to them before the mission. You get a feeling that Herzog acknowledges this new locale not merely as a hostile setting for Dengler's capture and eventual escape but also as hindrance to Dengler's unshakable object of obsession. In the jungle, he is grounded, vulnerable to nature's hold and whims. Most fascinating however is how Dengler reacts to this misfortune, with untainted optimism and a surprising hint of joviality. Dengler, as portrayed by Christian Bale in what feels like his most interesting performance wherein he doesn't have to brood or possess an aura of suffering, is immensely likable with his contagious positivism. This is the apparent delectable conceit in Herzog's Hollywood flick: a man is tortured and imprisoned in a foreign prison camp in the middle of a jungle yet he doesn't sulk in predictable misery as some of his co-prisoners do and instead survives for that glint of hope of being rescued.
Rescue Dawn is immensely watchable because of the relationships this typical Herzog hero earns from his new environment. Herzog gets most of the psychology correct: the way Dengler worries about shitting his pants while he's being tied to the ground; or the complex acquaintances he commits with his co-prisoners, all of whom are complicated individuals with various motivations and expectations in life. Herzog also acknowledges the concept of time, in a way that his characters do get thinner (most of his actors lost thirty to forty pounds during the duration of filming), and the relationships they have become more intricate (in a way that late in the movie, these prisoners would have been so emotionally attached to each other to the point of intimate physical gestures and choice of hallucinatory subject). Pitted against these factors is Dengler's initial obsession of resuming flight. Such is the rationale behind Dengler's unmatched hopefulness: that what trumps the challenges of hostile nature, the tortures of his captors, the persistence of time, the differing impulses of his companions, and Maslow's complete hierarchy of needs is this one towering endeavor, to be given back his wings and retain that human trait of insatiability, stubborn and near-insane as it is.
Perhaps, the most evident of Hollywood's influence in this distinctly Herzog work is the fact that it is undoubtedly a triumphant picture, one that ends with an inspirational speech by the rescued Dengler. In this regard, Herzog seems to have rewarded the obsession he has sufficiently explored (often with different outcomes, as in the case of the protagonists of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or most recently Grizzly Man) in his vast filmography with acceptance and a sense of heroism. It's an awkward conclusion considering that Dengler's motivation is hardly one that would merit overwhelming pontification by America's top pilots: his first mission is a failure having been shot and crashed his plane in the middle of the jungle, his allegiance to America rests primarily on the nation's ability to give him wings, and nowhere in the film did Herzog portray Dengler as sincerely nationalistic (he even jokes around the saying "to die for our country," obviously pertaining to the sense that his obsession trumps his love for America thus preferring not to die for country but to live to fly). Yet there he is in the middle of a cheering mob, delivering a speech to cap a film that details his obscene attempts to regain his undying need for flight from the temporary clutches of the Southeast Asian jungles. In that sense and awkward as it is, that final speech feels rightfully fitting. He is after all in the company of his peers, who most likely have the same insatiable passion. Among them, Dengler, survivor of a crash and months grounded by enemies, is a hero and that speech is his valedictory for being the most human, although crazed and stubborn, of them all.