Film Review: Rescue Dawn (dir by Werner Herzog)


Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) has been obsessed with flying ever since he was a child in Germany.  Towards the end of World War II, while his native country burned around him, Dieter would stare up at the skies and watch the American planes fly overhead and he knew that was not only what he wanted to do someday but also who he wanted to do it for.  Jump forward two decades, to 1966.  Dengler is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, an always smiling optimist who is considered to be something of a wild man.  When Dengler is reported as having been shot down over Loas, his fellow pilots are not only convinced that Dengler survived but that he’ll also eventually escape captivity.  Why?  Because they now Dieter Dengler is not the type to give up.

And they’re right.  Dengler not only survives the crash but he also survives in the wild.  After growing up in the rubble of Germany, Dengler is confident that he can survive anything.  Even when he’s finally captured by communist rebels, Dengler remains optimistic that he’ll make it back home.  When he’s told that he can go free if he signs a statement denouncing the United States, he refuses.  Dengler’s not going to turn on the country that allows him to fly.  Dengler soon finds himself being held in a POW camp with four other men, including two other Americans (played by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn).  The guards are determined to break Dengler but he’s just as determined to escape.  Hearing that it’s impossible to do so only makes Dengler more determined.

The story of Dieter Dengler and his eventual escape from captivity was originally told, by Dengler himself, in Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly.  That Herzog saw Dengler as a kindred spirit is evident in the fact that, 9 years after the documentary, Herzog again told Dengler’s story in the 2006 film, Rescue Dawn.

On the face of it, a story about a group of Americans escaping from a POW camp might sound like an unlikely topic for a Werner Herzog film but it doesn’t take long for Herzog to put his own distinctive stamp on the project.  As played by Bale, Dengler is another one of Herzog’s obessessive heroes.  Dengler’s obsession is not just with flying but also with being free.  For Dengler, that’s what being an American means and that’s why he would rather be tortured than sign a simple piece of paper denying the existence of that freedom.  Much as how Grizzly Man portrayed Timothy Treadwell as being a man who would rather be eaten by a bear than live a life that’s been dictated by others, Dengler would rather suffer than betray his adopted country.

Rescue Dawn also centers around another common Herzog theme, the pitilessness of nature.  Watching Dengler trying to make his way through the jungle, we’re reminded that nature will always win in the end.  In Herzog’s world, neither nature nor the universe as a whole has any ideology.  Long after every warrior has died, the film tells us, nature will still be there.  The one thing that the POWs and their captors have in common is that they’re all at the mercy of the chaos of nature.  Just as the jungle threatens to swallow up Dengler and the other prisoners, their captors are slowly starving to death due to a drought.  As filmed by Herzog, the jungle is both beautiful and overwhelming.  Even at the film’s triumphant conclusion, it’s hard not to feel that, for all the planning, Dengler’s escape and survival was due to the random chaos of the universe.  How much can we control and how much must we simply leave up to the whim of nature?

Bale, Davies, and Zahn all give excellent performances and Herzog keeps the story moving quickly.  It’s probably one of his most emotionally accessible films and it’s impossible not to shed a tear at that final scene.  That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s a good deal of controversy about the way that Rescue Dawn portrays Gene DeBruin, the POW played by Jeremy Davies.  The film often contrasts Dengler with DeBruin.  If Dengler is always hopeful and determined, DeBruin is portrayed as being unstable and unreliable.  However, by most accounts — including the one given by another one of the prisoners — DeBruin was actually the exact opposite of how he was portrayed in the film.  Instead of being selfish, he was a source of strength for the POWs and he actually refused to take advantage of a previous chance to escape because it would have meant abandoning the rest of the prisoners.  Herzog has said that he wasn’t aware of DeBruin’s heroism when he wrote and directed the film and that he now regrets the way that DeBruin was portrayed.  (DeBruin’s brother has said that Herzog refused to talk to the family while the film was in poduction.)  Rescue Dawn is a well-made and wonderfully acted film and it’s one that always brings tears to my mismatched eyes but, while watching it, it’s impossible not to regret the injustice that was done to Gene DeBruin.

Guilty Pleasure No. 29: On The Line (dir by Eric Bross)


OnTheLineposter

Last night, as I watched Dead 7, I could not help but think about the 2001 film, On The Line.  Don’t get me wrong, On The Line does not feature any zombies and there’s next to no violence.  However, much like Dead 7, it does feature quite a few boy banders.  In fact, with the exception of JC Chasez, every member of *NSYNC makes an appearance in On The Line.  Lance Bass stars in the movie.  Joey Fatone plays his best friend.  Finally, at the end of the film, in a scene that is so homophobic that it practically screams 2001, Justin Timberlake and Chris Kirkpatrick show up as a flamboyant makeup artist and an even more flamboyant hairstylist.

Lance plays Kevin, a shy and somewhat nerdy advertising exec who lives in Chicago.  Kevin falls in love easily but he’s always been too shy to have a serious relationship.  One day, Kevin is returning home from work on the train when he starts talking to Abbey (Emanuelle Chriqui).  It turns out that they both love the Chicago Cubs and Al Green!  (Oh my God!  Who would have guessed that two people living in Chicago would both love the local sports team!?)  It also turns out that both Kevin and Abbey can name all the Presidents in order!  Obviously, they are meant to be!  The universe arranged for them to both be on the train at the same time so that they can get married, have children, and discuss the presidency of Rutherford Hayes while watching the Cubs and listening to Al Green.

Unfortunately, despite being a single guy who has just totally hit it off with a single girl who is obviously attracted to him, Kevin forgets to get her phone number.  The movie explains this by saying that Kevin is shy but if he’s so shy that he can’t even give out his phone number then how did he ever find the courage to tell Abbey that he loves Al Green in the first place?

(Actually, Abbey isn’t really single but her fiancée is such a jerk that she might as well be.  Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that Abbey is not meant to marry a guy who spends all of his time on the phone, yelling, “Sell!  Sell!”)

Of course, if Kevin had gotten her phone number, there wouldn’t have been a movie.  So, instead, he recruits his loser friends (including Joey Fatone) to help him track down Abbey.  He puts up flyers all over Chicago.  A story about him appears in the newspaper.  Soon, the entire city is obsessed with whether or not Kevin will find this girl that he talked to for ten minutes.  However, Abbey apparently never watches TV or reads the newspaper because somehow, she doesn’t know all of this is going on…

There’s an interesting subtext to On The Line.  Lance Bass himself produced the film.  Five years after On The Line flopped at the box office, Lance officially came out as gay (and, it must be said, that whenever Kevin talks to Abbey, he comes across less like a future lover and more like every girl’s ideal gay best friend).  Lance has said that he was still deeply closeted when he made On The Line and there are times when the film seems to be almost desperate to convince us of Kevin’s (and, by association, Lance’s) heterosexuality.  In this context, that end credits scene with Chris and Justin, limp-wristed and speaking in exaggerated falsetto, is even ickier.  “Gay?” the film says to be saying, “If there was a gay person in On The Line, would Justin Timberlake be playing a makeup artist?  Would Chris Kirkpatrick be willing to appear as a hairdresser named Angelo?”

On The Line is not a particularly good film and yet, oddly, it’s one that I always find myself watching whenever I come across it on cable.  Lance may be miscast and he’s obviously uncomfortable in the majority of his scenes but he’s also likable.  You never believe for a second that Kevin and Abbey will last as a couple but Lance seems like a nice guy and Emmanuelle Chriqui is so pretty that you’re happy that they at least got to go on a date or two before breaking up and never seeing each other again.  They’re both pretty and it’s fun to watch pretty people talk to each other, even if they do lack a certain romantic chemistry.  As well, though his character is pretty obnoxious, Joey Fatone is still always fun to watch.

On The Line is no Dead 7 but it’s still watchable in its own stupid way.  I would suggest, however, skipping the end credits

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan