This fall, Werner Herzog hits retirement age, no doubt ready to laze his golden years away in a modest cottage nestled at the edge of an active volcano. His rebirth as intrepid documentarian has introduced the veteran of the 70s art house as resident crazy-man for a new generation of cinephiles, the habituation confirmed by last year’s genteel mystic-encounter profiles in the New Yorker and Harper’s. Fans who have been mesmerizing themselves with the back catalogue may well be intrigued at the prospect of a new fiction film by the director (except maybe those who have made their way up to Invincible).
After long delays, Rescue Dawn, care of MGM no less, debuts on Independence Day with the Vietnam POW story of indefatigable U.S. pilot Dieter Dengler. Drawing partly on survival drama and partly on prisoner-camp camaraderie, Rescue Dawn is necessarily less riveting than Herzog’s preceding film about Dengler, the 1997 documentary Little DieterNeeds to Fly. Mostly set in a prison camp, the film is remarkably buoyed by Bale’s hearty rendition of Dengler, a naturalized American fire-toughened from childhood in the rubble of postwar Germany. Dengler and company (an effectively deadpan Steven Zahn, a ridiculously stoner-explains-it-all Jeremy Davies) face starvation or murder at the hands of their barely better fed Laotian guards (who don’t seem to interest Herzog).
Herzogian touches include the primal jungle surrounding the camp, and some insistent close-ups of spooky bugs (some of which Bale almost certainly ate). But the “ecstasy” here is manifest in Dengler’s plain, relentless courage, delivered in plain-brown wrapping, without foregone heroism or tragedy.
Opens July 4