Wednesday, December 12, 2007


First the facts, then the fiction

By Edward Copeland
When I heard that Werner Herzog had made Rescue Dawn, a fictional telling of the story he told in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, I decided to wait until I caught up with the acclaimed documentary before seeing the feature. While I thought both were good, I can see why Herzog chose to flesh out Dieter Dengler's tale on a larger canvas, because Rescue Dawn is better.

In Herzog's feature take on Dengler's story, Christian Bale takes on the role of the German emigre to the United States whose desire to fly planes leads him into the U.S. Navy and the early part of the military escalation of Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

Both the documentary and the feature focus on the harrowing tale of what happens when Dengler's plane is downed over Laos on a secret mission to North Vietnam and he becomes one of a handful of American prisoners held there in the jungle.

One of the most compelling moments of the documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is the account of the friendship Dengler formed with a fellow prisoner (played in Rescue Dawn by Steve Zahn). While Zahn is good in the role, this may be the one area where the documentary beats the fiction, as the real Dengler presented a more vivid portrait of his friend than the fictional depiction can deliver. It also eliminates the suspense of what will happen to Zahn, but still that scene comes as a surprise anyway.

Bale though is the one who really carries the bulk of Rescue Dawn on his shoulders and it's amazing, especially in the early parts of the film, how little dialogue there is: just the uncertain sounds of the wild world which has enveloped Dengler.

The other major role of the film is a bit of a disappointment. Jeremy Davies plays another American prisoner, determined not to escape because of his belief that a release will be imminent. The twitchy, nervous prisoner is not a new character, but I swear that Davies looks and sounds as if they lifted him directly from the set of his starring role as Charles Manson in the TV remake of Helter Skelter.

Still, Herzog's direction and especially Bale keeps the momentum going nearly from start to finish. The reason I ended up preferring the fiction to the fact is that the documentary, told exclusively from the real, older Dengler's point-of-view seems silly at times, especially when they are re-creating scenes of Dieter's imprisonment and mistreatment with real-life Laotians of the 1990s filling in as his captors.

Still, both films are worth a look, though the two together don't exactly add up to a compelling whole.

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I gave Rescue Dawn a borderline favorable review. I had serious problems with two things in the film: the ridiculous ending and the preposterous performance by Jeremy Davies. He turns the movie into Charlie Manson's War and is damn near intolerable. Christian Bale carries the film and Herzog directs some harrowing sequences. Steve Zahn at first seemed miscast, but he won me over with his performance.

I'd weigh Little Dieter and Rescue Dawn the same, though I agree with you about the areas where Dieter is better.
While I thought Rescue Dawn was an incredible film, I have to disagree with you on it being better than Dieter. Dieter is simply one of the best docs I've ever seen.

Anyways....I did appreciate Steve Zahn's role in the film, but like you said, the "vivid portrait" painted of the character in the documentary is ultimately more interesting.
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