Rescue Dawn

Some are better than others.

Rescue Dawn earns an "A" by almost any standard of cinematic criticism, except for the rating exclusively judged against the brilliant director, Werner Herzog, with his own films. Then it earns a "B."

Christian Bale plays real life Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot downed in Laos in 1965. Bale plays the best POW I have ever seen on screen or stage, a combination of intelligence and eccentricity so beloved by the director, if you remember Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo, not to forget even Kasper Hauser.

Herzog has a gift for eliciting the right combination of terror and humanity in heroes stretched to their limits by the prison known as the jungle. Although I was artistically satisfied with Aguirre's embodiment of the colonial dementia of great exploring nations and Fitzcarraldo's imbalance of obsession and art, Dawn was too much escape and not enough philosophy.

Dawn is so heavily laden with the escape motif that the bigger existential issues are absent. Also MIA are the unforgettable images such as the armored conquistadores trudging down the mountain in Aguirre or the creaking ropes pulling the paddle wheeler across a mountain in Fitzcarraldo. The haunting pan flute makes no appearance either.

What Herzog does achieve is the claustrophobia any escapee would experience in the dense jungle and the cooperation demanded by these demanding circumstances. Dieter's subtle joy at the challenges supports Herzog's enduring vision of great, imbalanced men. Even more subtly does Herzog treat the malignity of incarceration and the delusion that wars like those in Vietnam and Iraq can be over quickly.

A Herzog film is always worth seeing; it's just that some are better than others. Rescue Dawn needs a bit of rescuing to measure up to his great films.