Werner Herzog’s passion is ruthless. The wild man director’s like a mother bear from his critical darling doc “Grizzly Man,” trying to protect her (celluloid) cub at all costs. Watching the recently released on DVD “Rescue Dawn,” the narrative version of Herzog’s decade-old documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” about the German-American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who survived being shot down and imprisoned, and a harrowing escape into the jungles of Vietnam, I can understand why loose cannon Kinski once pulled a gun on him. Fortunately, Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler absorbs Herzog’s directing punches with gentlemanlike aplomb.
There’s not a lazy bone in this director’s body. His obsessive attention to detail springs from a desire to climb inside his subject matter – even a pair of handcuffs’ inner workings is not too insignificant to capture. Herzog only films the movies he absolutely must make. Yet even with dark themes and unstoppable determination Herzog never forgets his wry sense of humor. “5 or 6 months?” Bale’s Dengler asks a comrade in disbelief, referring to the wait for monsoon season that will enable his escape from the Viet Cong prison. “No, I can’t wait that long,” he then adds in the tone of one forgoing a restaurant reservation. The absurd slapstick Herzog employs in “Rescue Dawn” – from a nail being stolen through a ruse involving toothpaste and a dwarf, to the accidental dropping of a machine gun that sets off a round of comic gunfire – is pure visual delight. Even the cathartic rescue of Dengler from the jungle is tempered by “Oh, shit!” as the helicopter medic discovers a live snake shooting from the former POW’s backpack as if from a trick can.
And the actors match Herzog’s tone with perfect pitch. Steve Zahn as Dengler’s desperate, desolate prisoner-in-arms speaks volumes with his eyes. He’s a condemned man, threatening to upstage Bale at every turn – as is nature as a character itself – one that, like man, acts as both friend and foe. As always Herzog’s camera is a visceral tool, the overwhelming beauty and oppressive heat of the jungle mixing to form an Eden in hell. Only the ending of “Rescue Dawn” is a bit of a lengthy misfire. Herzog should have finished his film on a literal high note, with that aerial shot of Dengler being airlifted back to civilization. Yes, Little Dieter did indeed need to fly, but Werner Herzog has scaled comparable heights.