Friday, August 10, 2007

REVIEW: Rescue Dawn

It has to mean something that the making of generally-positive, dare we say even "patriotic," films about America and/or the American soldier that are actually GOOD MOVIES is an act that Americans seem to no longer be capable of. Understand, I'm not talking about the broken-record of "conservative" bleating about "the hate-America left" or "the eeeeeevil Gay/Jewish/Liberal Hollywood conspiracy." I'm talking more generally about a disinterest or lack of "outside perspective" that at least SEEMS to be keeping U.S. filmmakers from any kind of net-positive examination of our admittedly quirky lil' culture. And no, Michael Bay's John-Philip-Sousza-Meets-Linkin-Park horeshit doesn't count. Where is the modern cinema's John Ford, able to celebrate ("She Wore a Yellow Ribbon") even as he scolded ("The Grapes of Wrath")? Where is our Frank Capra to mine the affection by HIGHLIGHTING the faults? Where is Preston Sturges to see virtue among the absurdity?

As depressing as it is to consider, is it possible or even PROBABLE that we are now so profoundly divided as a people that we no longer have anywhere to meet in universal acclaim? After all, why make a film about everyday people who make it through determination and opportunity when you KNOW that "conservatives" will just accuse you of "class warfare?" And why highlight the unique courage of American soldiers when you know "liberals" will see ANY positive military story as "pro-Bush/Iraq propaganda?" Who's got the time or gumption to risk that kind of B.S. just to tell a simple story?

The answer, as it turns out: Foriegners. Last year saw the best positive, uplifting "American dream" movie in almost decade in "The Pursuit of Happyness," directed by an Italian on the suggestion of the film's real-life inspiration that a foriegn filmmaker would understand the American Dream BETTER than most Americans. And now we have "Rescue Dawn," easily the most genuinely-felt and, yes, essentially patriotic ode to the will-to-survive and "frontier spirit" of American self-mythology in general and American soldiers in particular in YEARS... directed by German film icon Werner Herzog.

A "just-the-exciting-parts" dramatization of a true story Herzog documented years ago as "Little Dieter Needs To Fly," the film's hero is Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) a German-born American pilot shot down during a secret bombing-raid over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam (not-yet) War. As a child in Nazi Germany, Dieter caught the eyes of an American bomber pilot straffing the countryside from his bedroom window and became hell-bent on taking to the skies himself. When offered freedom and comfort post-capture by the Viet Cong authorities in exchange for signing an anti-American propaganda letter, his response is to matter-of-factly refuse, sliding the page back and calmly explaining "I will not sign this. I love America, America gave me wings." For this he earns a round of exceptionally nasty tortures, punishing marches an eventual internment in a hellish jungle prison camp - but neither these burdens nor the initial defeatedness of his fellow "inmates" seem to make a dent in Dengler's (brave? naive? both?) optimism as he hatches a daring escaped targeted for, yes, the 4th of July.

And, really, that's all there is to it. There's no reach for irony, context or broader questions. It's the simple story of a peculiar yet exceptional guy with the will to survive and the drive to actually pull it off. And while you'll find no slow-motion group-strides in front of a billowing flag or magic-hour aerial high-fives, Herzog subtly but unmistakably draws a clear paralell between Dieter Dengler's personality and the fact of his existance as what we once called the quintessential American: The optimistic immigrant with a surplus of spirit and guts. Once upon a time, this was the default-setting for "our" heroes, and as jarring as it is to see one played "straight" in a modern film it's EQUALLY jarring to see him existing at all in, of all places, a Vietnam movie. Such a strange animal... a story-outline and a character that would've been ideal fodder for John Ford and John Wayne (or Capra and Jimmy Stewart, come to think of it) somehow time-displaced to the very war where such iconography was supposed to have ceased to be, concieved in the age of 9-11 and Iraq by a German director and a British star.

It's not surprising at all that arthouse-icon Herzog would find a rather atypical (for a European filmmaker) affection for the U.S. His stock in trade, after-all, is a fascination with individuals posessed of "pioneer spirit" or it's ugly flip-side, pig-headed self-destructive tunnel vision. What better oasis for such fascinations than the culture that gave the world both the Moon Landind AND Manifest Destiny? And it's equally clear that Herzog, who makes his home Stateside, feels a certain kinship with fellow ex-pat countryman Dieter Dengler. The man himself said as much in an IFC interview about the film:

"We should be cautious, because there are an abundance of films that are anti-American or at least question American's attitude in the world. Strangely enough, this is a film that praises the real qualities of America. In Dieter Dengler, you had the best you can find in America: courage, frontier spirit, loyalty, the joy of life. He's the quintessential immigrant. He wanted to fly and America gave him wings. As you may know, I live in America, and it's not for no reason. I like America, even though I see there's trouble at the moment and turmoil. But in my opinion, America always has a kind of resilience and youthfulness to overcome all these things. Everyone is desperate about the situation right now and I keep saying, "Look back 50 years ago, how America overcame the McCarthy witchhunts." There is something I like about America, it's dear to my heart and I'm a guest in your country. It's not that I don't have some ambivalent feelings, but strangely enough, the film is against the trend." -- Werner Herzog

Of more immediate import is that it's also a damn, DAMN good little movie; a lean, mean, no-bullshit "POW escape" movie that merges Herzog's unparalelled expertise in capturing the feel of man pitted against The Forest Primeval with Christian Bale's fearless physical endurance-acting (alongside a pair of shockingly raw turns from Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) and the rat-tat-tat pace of an old-fashioned war picture. At once dreamlike and immediate, with moments of intruding-unreality as Dieter's mental state threatens to come undone, it's as though Herzog has located the central nexus of all other Vietnam films - if Dieter were, during his escape, bump into both Colonel Kurtz and John Rambo stalking side-by-side through the foliage, neither man would feel entirely out of place.

It's difficult to accurately describe just how good Bale actually is as Dieter, making a flesh-and-blood human being AND an improbably resourceful Movie Hero out of a character who is either the bravest man alive or a lunatic - in a film that doesn't seem to be interested in drawing a definative line between either option. Zahn, eternally-underrated and once-more the sidekick, has quite simply never been better - or in a better movie.

For decades now, Herzog has been one of the closely-protected cause-celebres of the most elite of the U.S. "arthouse" circles, but in the last few years he's had a sudden break toward the American mainstream thanks to the nature-doc circuit's embrace of his "Grizzly Man" and the Geek Culture's celebration of his oddball docu-spoof "Incident At Loch Ness." Yet even still, it's genuinely surprising to see him offer up such a personal-feeling work that is ALSO more broadly-accessible than a lot of so-called "tentpole" blockbusters of the summer. It will likely find it's audience on DVD, as did the similarly-underappreciated "The Great Raid," and when it does it will find itself in the rare position of a film that both Tarantino-generation Movie Geeks and film-lovers old enough to have seen "The Cowboys" on the big screen can find equally meritous - even if they'll soon be right back to arguing over whether or not the onscreen shooting-death of John Wayne was more or less traumatic than that of Optimus Prime.