Director refuses to make judgements about Vietnam

Vietnam War films use America’s first televised conflict to promote political agendas and draw far-reaching metaphors on man’s tolerance of evil. The tropical jungle morphs into a writhing living hell. Boot camp becomes training for the dystopic capitalist society. Francis Ford Coppola seeks significance in Apocalypse Now; Oliver Stone kills innocence in Platoon; Stanley Kubrick evokes shock in Full Metal Jacket. But in Rescue Dawn German director Werner Herzog sidesteps the genre and strips his tale of Vietnam down to bones as bare as the main character’s ribs abandoning commentary for a close-up of one man’s triumph over adversity. Based on the true story Herzog first told in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly Rescue Dawn begins with American immigrant pilot Dieter Dengler’s (Christian Bale) inaugural mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. Shot down by enemy fire Dengler survives only a few days before the Laotian resistance captures and interns him in a POW camp built from rattan and bamboo. Dengler joins five other prisoners including Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and finds himself their unwitting leader. When Dengler’s escape plan liberates them from camp however they discover the jungle is the true prison. What could have degenerated into a rip-off of a classic story of innocence lost instead emerges as a unique tale of persistence grounded in the environment. By enclosing the film in the bamboo walls of the camp and the snake-infested rivers of Laos Herzog resists zooming out into a larger context. Without the obligatory political overtones Herzog withholds not only commentary but also manipulative tricks leaving Bale and Zahn to hack through the jungle on their own without any help from a swelling score or handheld shots. Bringing the objectivity of documentaries to the dramatization of imprisonment creates a wrenching story of a fight against the elements. Beyond the tree lines and rushing rapids lies the story of two men’s survival and a camaraderie that evolves not out of friendship but necessity. Herzog doesn’t insert any cinematic clues about Dengler’s and Martin’s relationship or even about Dengler himself. The simple score that sweeps in and out of the jungle accents the prisoner’s lives but doesn’t fall into overbearing cues of emotion and the lack of a soundtrack eliminates any redundant renditions of “Break On Through” or “Fortunate Son.” Framed by palm fronds and rattan fences Herzog films even the harrowing scenes of torture from a detached viewpoint. His dispassionate stance forces the impetus of inquiry onto the audience asking questions about resilience and the capability of evil in man instead of pushing answers and opinions. In a film with understated camera work throughout and a musical score of careful violins Rescue Dawn serves up an enigma in its final moments. At first glance the ending jars and disconnects from the rest of the film but after re-examination the camera’s position belies the director’s intent. Not once does Herzog mount the lens over Dengler’s shoulder showing the world through his woe-begotten eyes. Instead Herzog keeps the viewpoint objective forcing neither commentary nor control onto his characters or the film. The director’s impartiality brings a refreshing viewpoint to the Vietnam-era genre. He refuses to make a judgment and instead steps back and allows the camera and ultimately the audience to decide what Dengler’s journey signifies in the Vietnam conflict: war as a whole or a story of the triumph of man.