Laos and back again

Rick Blaine’s reason for coming to arid Casablanca (“for the waters”) makes as much sense as Dieter Dengler’s explanation for ending up in southeast Asia shackled and tortured. “I only wanted to fly,” he tells an interrogator. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Werner Herzog accompanies the former Navy pilot back to the Laos-Vietnam border where, on a secret bombing mission in 1965, he was shot down and imprisoned. Dieter recounts how, as a 5-year-old observing an American fighter plane swoop down to attack his German village, he resolved that he, too, would fly. At 18, he emigrated to the United States, fulfilling his dream by joining the military.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is extraordinary not only for its account of how one resourceful and resilient man eluded his brutal captors and fled to safety. It also offers Dieter himself reflecting back with astonishing poise on the harrowing ordeal he survived 30 years before.  Filmed in 1997, four years prior to its hero’s death, Little Dieter Needs to Fly is, like Grizzly Man and Lessons of Darkness (Herzog’s cinematic meditation on the devastation wrought by the first Gulf War), a triumph of documentary art. But just as accountants ignore foreign-language releases until remade in English, adapting a nonfiction film into a dramatic feature surely increases market — if not aesthetic — value. Box office seems the chief justification for Rescue Dawn, whose title is as awkward as its main character is agile.

Christian Bale reenacts Dieter Dengler’s tribulations, beginning on the USS Ranger in the Gulf of Tonkin, where, as a jaunty young recruit, he flies off on his first, disastrous bombing run. Captured by a vicious band of Pathet Lao allied with the Viet Cong, he is conveyed through the jungle to a bamboo stockade, joining five other prisoners who, already confined for years, are on the verge of starvation and madness. A blend of Yankee spunk and Teutonic precision, he rallies them in a plan to break free.

The MVP of cinema as extreme sport (most notably in Fitzcarraldo, where, to tell the story of a musical zealot who transported an opera house across the Amazon rain forest, Herzog himself transported an opera house across the Amazon rain forest), Herzog elicits grueling Method performances; Bale eats squirming worms, and Steve Zahn reportedly lost 40 pounds to play Duane, a POW who has also lost hope. The human drama seems even more odious against the backdrop of a magnificent, verdant Asian landscape. Rescue Dawn succeeds in replicating Dengler’s intense adventure of capture, confinement, and flight. And yet the greatest escape movies — The Grand Illusion, The Bridge on the River Kwai — offer more than just a facsimile of wartime experiences.

Rescue Dawn is utterly convincing, if it is enough just to convince us that this is what happened. However, relying on Dieter’s narration to let us imagine what transpired, the earlier film is somehow more vivid. It is also more reflective. Whereas Little Dieter ends with the melancholy image of the older man walking through a Southwestern expanse that is the barren graveyard for hundreds of antiquated fighter planes, Rescue Dawn concludes with unanimous, guileless whoops of hooray. Is Iraq so horrendous or 1965 so distant that Vietnam has already succeeded World War II as — that oxymoron — “The Good War”? Two cheers to a war movie meticulous about tactics but devoid of ethics. 

Rescue Dawn
Writ. dir. Werner Herzog; feat. Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies (PG-13)

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