A fascinating article about Werner Herzog appeared in the April 24, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. It was fascinating in part because Herzog himself is fascinating. A larger-than-life director, he takes delight in pushing himself and his movies to the edge. One infamous incident involved trying to pull a huge ship across a jungle mountain. Another occurred when he was shot while doing an interview and insisted on finishing the interview. He is said to have remarked, “It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid.”

The article was also fascinating because it described the on-set battles Herzog was having with his producers and various technicians as he tried to finish the movie Rescue Dawn. Herzog is known mostly for his documentaries (like Grizzly Man) and his arthouse films starring Klaus Kinski. Rescue Dawn isn’t a blockbuster by any means, but it stars Christian Bale and came with a large crew and producers who expected Herzog to deliver a film on schedule and on budget. Meanwhile, he was dragging his crew all over Thailand looking for “the perfect light.” The result of those battles is finally making its way to Chicago this weekend.

Rescue Dawn is not a new story for Herzog. It’s based on the true tale of U.S. fighter pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down and captured in Laos during the Vietnam War. Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly is about Dengler’s life, with Dengler offering a haunting narration about being interrogated and tortured and held in a prisoner of war camp for months. Herzog’s latest is the fictionalized version of that story, with Bale in the Dengler role and Steve Zahn as a fellow prisoner who helps Dengler try to escape.

rd-081-resized.jpgAs with all of his roles, Bale brings a startling intensity to his performance. The early scenes show Dengler preparing for his first mission, and Bale conveys the almost child-like joy of a man doing exactly what he wants to do. Later, as he trudges through the jungle trying to survive, Bale and Herzog’s longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger capture what it must be like to be lost in truly inhospitable climate. By shooting Bale in tight, surrounded by dense vegetation, Zeitlinger creates a claustrophobic, overwhelming world.

The central part of the narrative takes place in the prisoner of war camp. Upon learning that many of the prisoners have been there one to three years already, Dengler asserts that he’s escaping. His fellow prisoners aren’t as keen on that idea, fearing both what will happen if they’re caught (their captors can be brutal) and what will happen if they’re not caught (who knows how far the jungle stretches?). These obstacles are unimportant to Dengler, though; he just wants to be free.

People familiar with Herzog’s work will recognize many of his pet themes in the film: man obsessed, man battling nature, man pushed to the limit. There are also some distinctly Herzogian touches. The film’s opening moments show a ‘60s-era plane dropping bombs in slow-motion over the jungle. But instead of the riveting sound of explosions, Herzog substitutes haunting, lyrical classical music. The odd juxtaposition creates an almost mystical quality. And the many scenes in the jungle are reminiscent of Aguirre, Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo.

It’s also clear, however, where Herzog lost the battles with his producers (of whom there are 11, including NBA basketball player Elton Brand!). The movie’s plot involves a rather conventional three-act structure, even if the story itself deserves something more complex. This means that some sections of the film feel truncated, while others are drawn out for no apparent reason. And while I have no doubt that Dengler and his comrades faced brutal violence in their ordeal, here those scenes seem designed to create footage for the trailer rather than provide a real sense of conflict.

The most egregious part of the film, though, is its conclusion. I won’t give too much away except that it ends with a standing ovation and then a freeze frame, followed by a postscript. My friend Garth, who likes the movie more than I did, argued that maybe the standing ovation is what happened in real life, which would excuse the cliche in his mind. I’m of a different mindset. I believe that a filmmaker who’s fictionalized other parts of the story has a responsibility to alter a cliche even if it actually occurred. The standing ovation at the end of a two-hour film has a much different impact than it would in real life. In other words, it doesn’t mean the same thing anymore because it feels too much like other bad movies we’ve seen. Besides, even Garth had to admit that the freeze frame and the swelling orchestral music weren’t, uh, cinema verite, shall we say. They’re just awful formulas and vivid examples of how Herzog may have won a few battles but lost the war.

Rescue Dawn: two 1/2, out of five