Yesterday I saw the Christian Bale movie I'd have preferred to see on Sunday, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn. It's based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, an American Navy pilot who was a POW early in the Viet Nam war. He actually managed to escape imprisonment, one of the few men in the history of modern warfare to do so, and the filmmakers show that this had not a little to do with what a remarkable person Dengler was. When the other prisoners are understandably cowed by the impossibility of their situation, Dengler exhibits a bizarrely fearless perspective and a basic respect for humanity, even the humanity of his captors.
Dengler was born in Germany, and as he tells his fellow POW, Duane, about seeing an American pilot bomb his home when he was a child, and deciding then and there he wanted to be a pilot, Duane tells him he's a strange bird; "Someone tries to kill you and you want his job." The ever-thoroughly committed Christian Bale is dragged by his ankles, tied by a rope to a running bull, then hung upside down with an ants nest tied to his face, and is finally placed in a slender concrete well, his face just above the waterline, and after all this, Dengler tells his fellow captives that he wishes there wasn't a war because one of the female guards smiled at him.
Strapped on his back with his limbs splayed for days, the most devastated reaction he has is, "What's the matter with you people? I told you I had to go to the bathroom and now I've shit myself."
The extraordinary nature of these episodes is heightened by the fact that this is the most technically flawless movie I've seen in a long time. Real locations were used whenever possible. There was no attempt to Mickey Mouse the dialogue, and I was enormously pleased that the actors portrayed even the subtler mannerisms of Americans in the 1960s. The special effects were flawless, but never overdone. There's no slow motion, pulse pounding attention given to the plane crash, just the abruptness and harshness of the experience, and the surreality of finding oneself in a strange country and an alien landscape after having been in the familiarity of a sealed cockpit.
The score is eerie and beautiful strings, and footage of the Thai jungle-scape is beautiful even as it's oppressive as Dengler struggles, tiredly hacking at an infinite sea of green vines.
A simple honesty pervades Herzog's technique. Extraordinary things just happen, Dengler just does amazing things, and the movie just is amazing.