MOVIE: Rescue Dawn (2007)

Several years ago, I saw a documentary by Werner Herzog (of Grizzly Man fame) called Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  It was about a German man named Dieter Dengler who immigrated to America as a kid and joined the military for the sole purpose of learning how to fly planes.  Unfortunately, he picked the early 60’s to sign up, and a few years later, was packed up and shipped off to Vietnam.

On his first flight mission, over Laos, Dieter was shot down, captured, and taken to a POW camp.  From day one, his goal was to escape, despite the fact his fellow inmates told him repeatedly that it wasn’t the prison that was the jail — it was the jungle outside it.  But after lots of observation and planning, Dieter finally pulled it off, escaping along with several other prisoners on June 29, 1966.  Dieter and one other man, a guy named Duane Martin, teamed up together on the outside and then spent several weeks struggling to survive in the insane jungles of Laos.  Twenty-three days after his escape, Dieter was finally rescued when an American pilot spotted him.

What I loved about the documentary was that it featured the real Dieter Dengler, taking us back to the very jungle he’d been lost in all those many years ago, and walking us through exactly what he went through, virtually day-by-day.  He’s a fascinating man with an unbelievable and moving story.  And it was really a terrific film.

Obviously, his story had a tremendous impact on director Werner Herzog too, because twelve years later, he made this movie, Rescue Dawn, which is essentially a more-Hollywood-esque version of the same story, starring Christian Bale as Dieter, and an astonishingly not-funny Steve Zahn as Duane Martin.  And while I thought many things about this film were done well, what surprised me about it was how many things Herzog changed.  Things changed that didn’t need changing, and things changed that really bothered me, like turning one of Dieter’s fellow captives into a mentally unbalanced villain of sorts, who threatens to turn them all in if they try to escape and essentially acts like a coward.  In real life, Dieter Dengler has said on more than one occasion that he considered Gene DeBruin, an Air America pilot (played by Jeremy Davies in the film), to be a hero.  I recently read DeBruin’s family is pretty upset about Rescue Dawn, and boy, I don’t blame them.

Of course, Herzog is pretty infamous for distorting the facts in his documentaries in order to make them more entertaining.  He did this in Grizzly Man, and he did it in Little Dieter as well (for example, there’s a scene in the beginning of the latter film in which the real-life Dieter opens and closes his front door about six times in succession, saying he does this whenever he goes through a door because he can’t bear the thought of being locked in — as it turns out, Herzog had Dengler do this for the film, even though it was completely made up, because he essentially thought it would make for a poignant moment).

In any case, you can mostly solve the problems of inaccuracy in Rescue Dawn by also watching Little Dieter (which is available for Watch Now at Netflix, by the way).  But, alas, you can’t solve the problem of Christian Bale, who, in my opinion, is just kind of boring in this.  To be honest, though, the only thing I’ve ever liked Bale in was Batman Returns, and even there, it was more like “tolerance” than actual “like.”  Every time he does an American accent, it sounds so forced and fake — he always sounds like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho to me, and that never fails to give me the creeps. 

I know, I know: you guys all WORSHIP CHRISTIAN BALE.  I hear you.  I just don’t understand you. 

The actor who DID impress me in this film was, astonishingly enough, Steve Zahn.  I’ve loved Zahn for many years now — as far as funny sidekicks go, you need go no further.  But what I didn’t know about him was that he can not only do “serious,” but he can seriously kick “serious’s” butt.  He is phenomenal in this movie — believable, sincere ,and virtually unrecognizable to boot.  I found his character far more moving and authentic than Bale’s, and that’s all about the acting, in my opinion.

Other than some nicely done scenes and a fairly engrossing storyline (not worth nothing, of course), however, this movie plays like a fairly standard Vietnam flick.  I had been eager to see what Herzog would do with a Hollywood version of his terrific documentary, but I was kind of ho-hum about the actual result.  Nevertheless, it’s a good story and one well worth watching.  Definitely be sure to check out Little Dieter Needs to Fly for some balance, though.  And you might want to read Wikipedia pages about Duane Martin, Gene DeBruin, and other side characters as well (the movie focuses primarily on Dieter, for obvious reasons, but these other guys were pretty amazing themselves).

[Netflix me | Buy me | Netflix Little Dieter]

Genre:  Drama, War
Cast:  Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Pat Healy, Marshall Bell

Tags: ,

9 Responses to “MOVIE: Rescue Dawn (2007)”

  1. Eva Says:

    I share your thoughts on Bale – he’s just never done much for me. (Even though I’m one of the original Newsies freaks.) I did find him very impressive in 3:10 to Yuma, though.

    I believe that Steve Zahn was robbed when he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Riding in Cars with Boys. (Between that and Haley Joel Osment getting robbed on Sixth Sense, I have never looked at the Oscars the same way again.)

  2. Trip Says:

    What were the distortions that Herzog put in Grizzly Man? Just curious, as that was one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. I loved how it didn’t pull any punches, and how Herzog let you know how he felt about his subject, but then stood back and let you make up your own mind.

    Anyway, this one’s close to the top of my queue, so it’s cool to read an early review.

    I’ve always liked Christian Bale myself…he has a charisma that’s hard to identify in anyone else in his generation. I guess I took a liking to the guy ever since I saw him in Equilibrium, a great looking, but horribly bad and unintentionally funny dystopian sci-fi flick. He made a spectacularly awful movie into a tolerable one.

    He also dropped something like 63 pounds for The Machinist – I admire that kind of discipline. Man, was he hideously thin in that.

  3. megwood Says:

    I can’t cite an example as strong from “Grizzly Man” (incidentally, one of my favorite movies of 2006:, but I just finished reading “Death in the Grizzly Maze” by Mike Lapinski, and there were things in the book that didn’t quite mesh with things in the film. Herzog DOES have a strong bias (and so, for that matter, does Lapinski), which always makes me a bit suspicious about what’s being omitted. But there were also things Herzog said in the film that, according to what I read in Lapinski’s book, are not correct. They’re mostly small things — like, Herzog says that Treadwell never took a face-on shot of Amie in his films, which isn’t true, and the effect of hearing that in the film for me, anyway, was to feel like maybe Amie wasn’t that important to Timothy. Not the case, according to the book. But, I don’t really know enough about Treadwell’s life to be able to go much further than little nitpicking like that.

    It’s more that I know about HERZOG, and that he’s done this before in his documentaries (and now in “Rescue Dawn,” too, which is a little more acceptable, but still sort of bothersome for me), and that makes me a little bit suspicious of just about everything he does. Obviously, I think Herzog is a brilliant filmmaker — I’ve said that more than once, and “Little Dieter” and “Grizzly Man” are two of my all-time favorite documentaries. But I do think, and this is probably true for any documentary, really, that viewers should be aware that they aren’t getting a complete, unbiased story. And it’s worth taking Herzog’s films with a smidge more grain of salt than usual, if what’s been said about “Little Dieter” is actually true. I mean, seriously — that opening/closing doors thing? To be honest, I find that somewhat inexcusable, if it’s actually true that Herzog asked Dieter to pretend that was one of this “quirks.” It wasn’t that powerful a moment, really — it was sort of trite and cheesy, actually. I lost some respect for Herzog when I read about that, and I haven’t quite gained it all back yet.

  4. Trip Says:

    I’ve thought about this for a bit, and I think that Herzog’s omission of Amie’s footage is probably well-intended and adds to the power of the film.

    Early on, Herzog makes it clear that he was fascinated by Treadwell’s story, and that there were larger themes at play – man vs. nature, man’s search for redemption, spiritual isolation, that kind of thing.

    There’s also an early scene where there’s a guy talking to the camera saying how Treadwell was a fool, he thought he was playing with people in bear costumes instead of real bears, etc., and he makes a remark that it was a shame the girl had to be killed too.

    If Herzog kept footage of Amie in there, then the story is no longer about one man and his wild story. Now it’s a tragedy about *two* people – and that changes the story pretty significantly. I think if Herzog had kept her footage in the film, the viewer’s sympathies would have tilted away from Treadwell quickly and early. You’d spend the rest of the movie disgusted at him, rather than focusing on the larger themes Herzog is pointing at.

    Plus, I think it would have taken away from the power and dread of the audio tape scene. If you’ve already been familiarized with Amie by then, I think that scene would have become gratuitous and unnecessary.

    BTW, I enjoyed “Cell” by Stephen King as well, although it sort of felt like King had a hard time figuring out how to end it. It’ll make a great B-movie some day. I thought the zombies laying perfectly still at night, side-by-side in huge rows in the stadium was really creepy and effective.

  5. megwood Says:

    Well, yes, that’s actually one of the huge complaints a lot of people had about both Grizzly Man and the media coverage of Timothy’s death — it WAS two people who died, and Amie is almost never mentioned in anything, something her familiy has had a really hard time coping with (according to Lapinski, anyway). The fact is, Treadwell did foolishly (and against the explicit directives of his primary financial backer) take Amie up there and then he got her killed. To just gloss over this fact, and Amie herself, DOESN’T actually make it so the viewer can “make up their own mind” while watching “Grizzly Man.” It’s not that I wanted her story to be equal with Tim’s — it’s just that I felt Herzog deliberately gave us a misdirected sense of their relationship, which doesn’t seem fair now that I know more about what actually happened.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that any biography or documentary is ever going to be 100% unbiased and accurate, but I clearly still haven’t forgiven Herzog for that outright lie/manipulation in “Little Dieter,” and after his unnecessary changes in “Rescue Dawn” (obviously, he changed those things to make the film seem more dramatic, but that just tells me his sense of the dramatic is off, because the truth makes for a far more interesting story), I do confess I respect him a little bit less than I used to. And that only worsened after I read “Death in the Grizzly Maze” and found out so much more about the truth behind Amie’s involvement, as well as about Treadwell.

    But, again, “Grizzly Man” is a terrific film and having just reread Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” recently as well, it was interesting seeing “Grizzly” again. Some real parallels between those two people and their stories. Make for a bummer of a double-feature, but I might still have to give that a try when “Into the Wild” hits DVD.

    Can’t WAIT for a “Cell” movie — bring on the zombies!

  6. TF Says:

    You really don’t know enough about Amie or their relationship to make a comment as ignorant as, “Timothy got her killed.”

  7. megwood Says:

    I don’t agree that that’s an “ignorant” statement, TF. It’s an opinion, and one we clearly disagree on, but it’s not one I just threw out there on a whim, without first taking the time to learn what I could about Treadwell, his life with the bears, and the events of the day of his death. Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean one of us is stupid. If you’d like to disagree, you might try engaging me in a well-reasoned argument. Start with that instead of the name-calling, and you may find that I am not only extremely open-minded, but that I frequently change my opinion when people take the time to better inform me.

  8. TF Says:

    First off, whoa there. I did not call you stupid, I said your statement was ignorant. Big difference.
    Second, Amie was a highly educated person. She wasn’t the only woman to go out there with Tim and she had been out before. Tim wasn’t killed getting close to the bears, he was killed doing what everyone in Alaska and elsewhere is taught to do when a bear enters your camp while you are in a tent. Could have happened to anyone.
    She also made her own choice not to carry bear spray, where other women who had been out with Tim did.
    I don’t really want to elaborate further but those are some points I will make.

  9. megwood Says:

    Yeah, I don’t really want to have this conversation here myself. But I continue to disagree with you (including with some of the points you just made and especially in regards to the “ignorance” of my opinion in the first place), and if you haven’t read Mike Lapinski’s book “Death in the Grizzly Maze,” you really should. I think you’ll find it enlightening. Thanks for posting!

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