(director/writer: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger; editor: Joe Bini; music: Klaus Badelt; cast: Christian Bale (Dieter Dengler), Steve Zahn (Duane), Jeremy Davies (Gene), Toby Huss (Spook); Runtime: 126; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Steve Marlton/Elton Brand/Harry Knapp; MGM; 2006)
“Christian Bale, the American psycho, makes for a wonderfully obsessed Herzog protagonist.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is the first American studio film by veteran German filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Fitzcarraldo”/”Little Dieter Needs to Fly”/”Aguirre, The Wrath of God”). It’s a remake of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and is his most accessible and conventional film and, perhaps, his most impactful–certainly one of his more gripping efforts. Christian Bale, the American psycho, makes for a wonderfully obsessed Herzog protagonist playing the gung-ho German-born American navy pilot Dieter Dengler, whose plane was shot down on his first mission and he was captured by oppressive Pathet Lao irregulars while on a classified mission in Laos (filmed in Thailand) to take out Vietcong targets during the early days of the Vietnam War and was detained as a POW in a hellish makeshift jungle prison camp in Laos with fellow Americans Duane (Steve Zahn) and the neurotic longhaired redneck from Oregon named Gene (Jeremy Davies). His miraculous barefoot escape through the dangerous tribal countryside, the snake-infested jungle and the leech-infested waters is based on his true story, as he became the only U.S. military man to escape from Laos during the long conflict.
Dengler was a child during World War II when he witnessed his town destroyed in an American bombing raid. In the documentary, he said this experience made him want to become a fighter pilot because he was so traumatized by war. He arrived in America when he was 18 and enlisted in the Air Force, but it took a few years before he gained entry to a naval flight school and after graduating in 1966 he found himself in Vietnam–just as the limited war was escalating. He makes it clear he just loved flying and the American way of life, and wasn’t out for the glory or to kill.
The heart of the apolitical film drags at times, as the lengthy scenes of the POWs being tortured in their stockade hut compound wasn’t a picnic to watch; especially as we observe them dining on their daily rations of live worms or else facing starvation. But the dark adventure tale, a realistic Rambo-like offering, has its sunny hero convince his weaker comrades that escape is possible and is the only viable alternative, but he alone comes out of the jungle alive to be welcomed home with bountiful love by his outfit as he displays his American cockiness and resilience to be all he can be against all odds of succeeding–sort of like other great American action heroes from cinema, such as the Duke and Arnold. The difference is, is that this hero is real flesh and blood.
REVIEWED ON 8/18/2007 GRADE: B+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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