RESCUE DAWN written and directed by Werner Herzog, with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. An Odeon Films release. 126 minutes. Opens Friday (July 6). Rating: NNNN
Can Werner Herzog make a "normal" movie?
Most of his features have peculiar narratives or involve some bizarre experiment - like hypnotizing the cast of Heart Of Glass - or have some astonishingly gruelling element in their production history, like the attempt to move a huge boat over a mountain for Fitzcarraldo.
Herzog's persistent return to the documentary demonstrates a deep interest in the "real," so it's a bit surprising that, for the first time in a career that now spans four decades, he has refashioned one of his own documentaries into a fictional feature.
Rescue Dawn is a dramatized version of his documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly.
Little Dieter is the story of Dieter Dengler, a German who emigrated to America, joined the U.S. military to become a pilot, was shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War and engineered a dramatic escape from a prison camp.
Allowing for the poetic compression of the imagery, Little Dieter is the most conventional of Herzog's documentaries, a stirring tale of human ambition and survival against great odds.
With Christian Bale as Dieter, Rescue Dawn is Herzog's most "normal" movie - a POW escape movie with Hollywood stars - and it's very, very good.
I'm not suggesting that Herzog has somehow been wasting his time for the last 30 years by following his own obsessive, contrary and wildly eccentric path. I wouldn't trade the visionary documentaries Fata Morgana and Lessons Of Darkness or the epic nightmare of Aguirre, Wrath Of God for 30 years of "normal" movies.
Rescue Dawn is a smart, entertaining, inspirational movie about an odd character - one who realized his dream of flight only to have it turn into a nightmare when he's unexpectedly returned to earth.
Both the dream and the nightmare resonate with Herzog. Flight is not an infrequent theme in his work, and he's also obsessed with man-versus-pitiless-nature stories - Fata Morgana, Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man - and both themes surface here.
(Herzog is one of those rare foreign directors whose films are readily available on North American DVD, largely from Anchor Bay, though Image has a superb disc with the documentaries The Great Ecstasy Of Woodcarver Steiner and La Soufrière.)
Bale, as always, is superb and willing to go to bizarre lengths to create his character. It's not like The Machinist, for which he lost a ridiculous amount of weight, but he's willing to eat some kind of wriggly bugs to convince us that prison camp food is really bad and that he's crazy dedicated to the idea of escape.
The pairing of Bale and Herzog is key - they're both artists devoted to the real. If Bale lacks the weirdo intensity of Herzog's greatest star, Klaus Kinski, he does more to ground the film and is easier to connect with emotionally than Kinski.
Bale makes an interesting decision not to do Dengler's accent. In the documentary, Dengler, even after decades in America, still has a marked German accent.
Instead, Bale uses no contractions, a real English-as-a-second-language habit. The same rhythms can be heard in Herzog's DVD commentaries.
Steve Zahn as the loyal sidekick is almost as intense as Bale. As the third of the film's American POWs, Jeremy Davies still carries a trace of his portrayal of Charles Manson from the 2004 remake of Helter Skelter.
In our digital age, the very idea of the integrity of the image has taken such a beating that for a moment early in Rescue Dawn I was wondering if a shot of Bale on a sandy outcrop surrounded by mountains was a practical location - the film was shot in Thailand - or a composited shot.
I decided that it had to be a practical not because of any visual evidence but because it was by Herzog, a man who once tried to haul a boat weighing a couple of tons over a South American mountain.
Surely, Herzog wouldn't use CGI. I hope.