For a while, dropping Werner Herzog's name was a snooty cinephile's badge of honor: "Have you seen his midget movie? The one where they go all crazy?" (That'd be 1970's Even Dwarfs Started Small, and the correct response—regardless of its veracity—is "Yes, of course. Excellent!") "Or that insane one? About the crazy dude in the rainforest?" (Aguirre, the Wrath of God, 1972.) "No, Herzog's best is that one with that creepy Wormtongue dude from Lord of the Rings as a monologuing space alien." (The Wild Blue Yonder, 2005.) And so the legend of Herzog spread, through the reverent whispers of film geeks, until 2005's Grizzly Man, one of Herzog's best. Following a crazy dude who lived with (and was killed by) grizzly bears in Alaska, the documentary gave Herzog's previously niche films a wider audience.
Now, with Rescue Dawn, Herzog is pushing, however gingerly, at widespread American acceptance. Starring Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn is getting wide release, and Herzog—a fascinating filmmaker whose films have too-long been relegated to dusty "foreign" shelves at American video stores—is finally getting some popular appreciation. That's what happens, I guess, when one goes from making black-and-white movies about midgets to casting Batman in a feel-good movie about an American pilot surviving the moral and physical quagmire of Vietnam.
For its first third, there's little to separate Herzog's latest from the plethora of "based on a true story" flicks about noble American servicemen surviving under dire circumstances, from the Buckheimer-approved bombast of Black Hawk Down to the rah-rah patriotism of Behind Enemy Lines. But this is Herzog, so give it the benefit of the doubt: Dieter Dengler (Bale) is a pilot who gets shot down over Laos. Quickly captured and stuck in a POW camp, Dengler meets a bunch of disheartened captives—including the batshit crazy Gene deBruin (Jeremy Davies) and the psychologically fragile but loveable Duane Martin (Zahn). Taking a dangerous risk, Dengler plots a breakout.
It's here—in Rescue Dawn's characters—that Herzog really gets going. What unfolds is a sometimes funny, sometimes tense, sometimes moving story about men—attempting to survive their captors, allies, and selves. As Herzog's scope widens from the prisoners' camp to the surrounding jungle, the emotional and psychological stakes rise accordingly—on the surface, this is a pretty standard "survival in the face of adversity" story; a bit deeper, it's a heartfelt character study.
Which is maybe what makes Rescue Dawn different from Herzog's previous efforts: Unlike almost every other Herzog film, Rescue Dawn feels perfectly at home in a multiplex. On one hand, that's good—it exposes more people to Herzog's work. On the other, there's no shaking the fact that Rescue Dawn—while emotionally engaging, solidly directed, and with excellent performances—leaves something to be desired, with its overall predictability and an almost-bland aftertaste. But then again, this is Herzog we're talking about—he'll be up to something bizarre and unexpected soon. Until then, Rescue Dawn is as good a way as any to tide us over.