Friday, July 13, 2007

Movies: Rescue Dawn

I read enough about the making of this film that, upon watching it, I kept saying to myself, "yeah, he was right, yeah, that totally works," he being, of course, Werner Herzog. The things that work are, at least for me, primarily cinematographic: opening the film with stock footage showing gorgeous bursts of smoke and flame against a verdant riverside village of thatched huts, then sticking with a film stock that mimics the color and quality of the 1970s (a beauty we rarely access these days), holding the camera in hand while following the actors fighting through the jungle's lush and sinewy seven foot high thicket rather than using smooth dolly shots, and bringing the camera (encased in water-proof plexi) into the river alongside the actors on their raft so that the brown water splashes, repeatedly, up and over the lens, shoving us, in the theater, under the cold, opaque water along with our heroes, fighting to keep their heads above the current.

Considered against our country's behavior during Vietnam, and now in particular, one must bristle at Dieter Dengler's American pride when he refuses, soon after his capture, to sign a document excoriating his government for its activities in Laos and Vietnam. His explanation—that he didn't want to go to war, but only wanted to fly—ought to be problematized as precisely the juvenile, solipsistic, lack of mindfulness for which Americans are constantly criticized. Instead, Herzog allows us to bask in the triumph of his will (and his intelligence; before Dengler leaves his base, we see him requesting certain items other pilots lacked the foresight to desire). Herzog has long proclaimed his love for the "American Spirit"—the rugged individualism that made Dengler prefer to take his chances in the jungle than remain prisoner of abusive enemies. And yet, Dengler has no qualms about serving the intentions of a government about which he probably knows little, and, if his statement about not wanting to go to war is true, a government with whose agenda he does not agree. He is therefore not so much the rugged individualist* that Herzog himself is, who fought tooth and nail with his production company during the making of this film, that it could be made in his own way, and rightfully so.

For all of this problematizing, the film is a visual spectacle that oughtn't be missed; each shot is masterfully framed, whether a portrait or a landscape or a genre scene (yes, they look like paintings, or maybe photographs in the era of Cartier-Bresson). Steve Zahn toes the line between acting at his maximum and over-acting; he occasionally crosses that line to ill affect. Christian Bale's performance as Dengler is perfectly fine—completely believable—but Jeremy Davies steals the show as the skin-and-bones ghost of himself, doing the same lost-his-mind act as he did in Soderbergh's Solaris, but with more probable cause this time around. He shows us the lowest point of the human spirit, as Dengler's robust intent embodies the highest. It's not unusual that the pathetic moves us more than the triumphant; his "failure" (it isn't fair to call it that, although that is the light in which Dengler's character can only cast it) is far more poignant than Dengler's accomplishment.

*Because Dengler was a real person, I must here specify that I am referring to the character in the film as written by Herzog, not the man himself, whose words, emotions, and intentions, may have been warped by time and filmic process.

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