In 1997, Werner Herzog made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary about Dieter Dengler, a German-born fighter pilot flying for the U.S. Navy who was shot down over Laos in 1965. Now he's decided to dramatize that story in a feature film, with Christian Bale giving a powerhouse performance as a more Americanized Dengler. (There's no hint of a German accent.)
The plot is simplicity itself: Dengler is shot down during his first combat mission, is captured by local villagers and sent to a horrific P.O.W. camp, where he and the other inmates suffer mightily until they concoct a daring escape. After breaking out of the hellhole, Dengler and buddy Duane (Steve Zahn, uncharacteristically low-key, and excellent) try to make their way to the Mekong River, where they will then hopefully float their way to freedom in Thailand. But only Dieter is rescued, and at the end he is given an uproarious welcome by his shipmates.
If all this sounds like "been there, done that," the strength of Rescue Dawn is in its details and performances. Herzog takes great care to delineate the ways in which Dengler--something of an eccentric, but also a real leader--deals with his harsh imprisonment, adjusts to it, and plans the big escape. The feel of this camp, with its incredibly brutal guards, sweltering heat and barely adequate food supplies, is not only palpable, but truly oppressive. Some scenes are, in fact, so hard to watch, they make the Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter look like a clip from a Disney movie.
So there's little doubt that we can admire Dengler's spunk, will to live and survival skills. But the film operates in a curious moral vacuum that undercuts its strengths, and makes one wonder just what Herzog was thinking when he was taking on this project. For one thing, it's made very clear that Dengler has been flying on a classified, and highly illegal, mission, because Laos was officially neutral, and its airspace was closed to American planes. Even worse, almost all the natives and prison guards in Rescue Dawn are portrayed as subhuman beasts (the only "good guy" is a dwarf who also appears to be slightly retarded) who lack even the thinnest veneer of civilization. It's a thoroughly racist view, made even worse because there's almost no acknowledgment that they might be so vicious towards the Americans because their planes have been napalming the local villages and rice paddies. About the only time this comes up is when Our Boys have to move up their escape plans because the guards, driven desperate by hunger, plan to kill their prisoners and go back to their villages, where they hope to find food. But this situation, essentially caused by the American bombing, is viewed only through the lens of the prisoners' escape attempt.
Interestingly enough, Rescue Dawn opens with newsreel footage taken from the back of a bomber as it lays down napalm over a peaceful farm valley. Yet the film never really follows up on this reality, and instead concentrates on one man's will to survive. That's OK in itself, but ignoring the context is a cinematic crime that makes Herzog's film almost an apology for far greater transgressions performed by the American military during the Vietnam War.