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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Working Girl (dir by Mike Nichols)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1988 best picture nominee, Working Girl!)

Welcome to the 80s!

Yes, Working Girl is definitely a film of its time.  It’s a film that’s obsessed with big things: big dreams, big offices, big money, and big hair.  It’s a movie where the heroes talk about hostile takeovers and where everyone’s dream is to eventually to be an executive on Wall Street.  You know all of those people who claim that The Big Short is the greatest movie ever made?  I can guarantee that the majority of them would totally hate every character in Working Girl.  Working Girl is such a film of the past that it even features Alec Baldwin doing something other than bellowing at people.  In fact, Baldwin’s actually sexy in Working Girl.  It was strange to see him in this film and realize that he was the same actor who currently spends all of his time picking fights on twitter and defending James Toback.

Of course, Alec Baldwin has a relatively small role in Working Girl.  He plays Mick Dugan, the type of blue-collar guy who gives his girlfriend lingerie for her birthday (“I just wish you would get me something that I could wear outside,” she says as she tries it on) and who then proceeds to cheat on her while she’s off at work.  From the minute we first meet Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), we know that she deserves better than Mick.

Tess is a professional administrative assistant.  She’s just turned 30 but she’s not ready to give up her dreams and settle for a life of fighting off coke-snorting executives and coming home to some guy like Mick.  (Speaking of early performances from infamous actors, one of the coke-snorting executives is played by Kevin Spacey.)  Tess has got a bachelor’s degree in Business.  As she puts it, she has a “mind for business and a bod for sin.”

She’s also got a new boss, an up-and-coming executive named Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver).  It turns out that Katherine is 29 years old.  (“I’ve never worked for someone younger than me before,” Tess says as Katherine gives her a condescending smile.)  Katharine encourages Tess to think of her as being a mentor.  If Tess has any ideas for investments, she should feel free to bring them to Katharine.  Of course, when Tess does so, Katharine claims that her bosses shot the idea down.  It’s only after Katharine breaks her leg in a skiing accident and is laid up in Europe that Tess discovers that Katharine has actually been stealing her ideas and not giving her any credit for them.

What is Tess to do?  Well, she does what any of us would do.  She passes herself off as an executive and presents her idea to Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) herself.  Jack is impressed with the idea but he’s even more impressed with Tess.  Of course, complicating things is that Jack was once in a relationship with Katharine and Katharine still thinks that she’s going to eventually marry Jack.  And, of course, there’s the fact that Tess is lying about actually being an executive…

Working Girl is a frequently amusing film, elevated by performances of Melanie Griffith and, in the role of Tess’s best friend, Joan Cusack.  Add to that, Harrison Ford is remarkable non-grouchy as Jack Trainer and Sigourney Weaver appears to be having the time of her life playing a villain.  Even as I laughed at some of the lines, here was a part of me that wished that the film had a bit more bite.  At times, Working Girl tries too hard to have it both ways, both satirizing and celebrating Wall Street culture.  In the end, the film works best as a piece of wish-fulfillment.  It’s a film that says that not only can you win success and Harrison Ford but you can get your bitchy boss fired too.

Despite being a rather slight (if likable) film, Working Girl was nominated for Best Picture of 1988.  However, it lost to Rain Man.

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.