Friday, July 20, 2007

Wellington times

I have been doing a spot of volunteering here in Wellington - just basic stuff for the local foodbank run by the City Mission and also helping out with organisation at the Red Cross here for the First Aid courses they teach as fund raisers.

As the film festival began today I took in Rescue Dawn, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Christian Bale. This is easily the most commercial of Herzog's films that I have seen - the other being Wild Blue Yonder and Grizzly Man. Shot in super saturated retro flavoured high contrast jungle colour Rescue seems to tell the story of Dieter Dengler who, whilst flying his first combat mission as a US Navy pilot, a secret bombing mission over the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos, is shot down and subsequently captured by guerrilla fighters below (nowadays they might of course be called 'Terrists'). I say apparently because this really is not a film containing any deep message on the political level. Even the simple stuff like War is Hell is left aside. The story sticks close to Dieter through his multi month sweat drenched ordeal.

It's a kind of Deer Hunter lite. The two films share key elements; the way Dieter leads the rag tag pack of POWs to escape and supports the one comrade who ends up accompanying him into the jungle odyssey which awaits; Bale's realist and pragmatist hero with just enough wildness in his own heart to keep him on the right side of sanity (most of the time anyway).

So it seems a simple story, 'inspired by true events' from the life of Dieter D. Incidentally that particular trope seems to be too ripe to resist since Spielberg used it as an excuse to tell a pack of lies about the Israeli death squads in Munich. But we spend a lot of time in the jungle with Dieter. And how beautiful it is to be there. This film does justice to the natural world of South East Asia and contrasts this beauty and its brooding massiveness with the flailing, desperate humans deep beneath the triple canopy. The density and impenetrability of the bush is almost like another character on screen, swiping, entangling and felling the actors in this story of a simple desire to survive.

Our hero is out of his depth but gains a fingernail of purchase on the rim of survival against huge odds and just hangs on. Bale, not always convincing previously although perhaps the scripts were to blame anorexia-like starvation notwithstanding, carries this role brilliantly. It is not a film of gravitas and neither is his acting; he and Herzog have struck the right balance. Dieter comes across as a robust and singly determined individual, but also human and full of compassion. He understands human frailty and Bale shows us this in the way Dieter comes across as a man who seems, to his benefit, to be not quite grown up. The little boy who wanted so desperately to be a pilot is getting the adventure he might just have been looking for but it's 20C hotter than he wanted, the machetes are viciously sharp and snakes and worms don't really taste that good it turns out.

Finally there is a happy ending and this doesn't spoil the film because it's not a thriller or even an action movie in many ways. The 'action' is intentionally muted. It is replaced instead by the small minute by minute dramas of the crash and initial evasion, escape and survival in the jungle and the desperate descent into madness of the other POWs.

This is a surprisingly kind film, set in a war zone. We hate neither the captors nor the captured and there is no sledgehammer of condemnation being wielded. That has been done before and will no doubt be done again. Herzog and Bale have trodden a very fine line in telling this story and end up guiding the film into unusual territory.

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