After a series of strong documentaries (GRIZZLY MAN, THE WHITE DIAMOND), a disappointing feature (INVINCIBLE) and a bizarre combination of the two (WILD BLUE YONDER), German maverick Werner Herzog returns to form with a dramatization of his 1997 documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY. The result is the kind of straight-up, rumble-in-the-jungle historical adventure that made him internationally famous.
Laos, 1966: Having been diverted from his primary target over North Vietnam due to heavy cloud cover, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down over the thick Laotian jungles surrounding the Ho Chi Minh Trail that snakes down through Laos and Cambodia. It's only Dieter's first mission, but he clearly paid close attention during survival training: Dieter ditches the radio that could be used by the Viet Cong to lure a rescue team to its doom, strips his flight suit of identifying labels he keeps his passport hidden inside the tongue of his shoe and sleeps inside his specially constructed mosquito net. Despite his best efforts, Dieter is soon captured by Laotian troops and forced to run through the jungle with a rope lassoed around his neck and his hands bound behind his back. When Dieter finally admits to being an American, an English-speaking Laotian official offers a deal: He'll be freed in two weeks if he signs a document denouncing the U.S. as an imperialist power. He refuses: Though the German-born Dieter lived through Allied bombings during WWII, he's fiercely loyal to his adopted country and credits the sight of a U.S. bomber pilot over his Black Forest village as the spark that ignited his lifelong passion for flying. Dieter is again tortured by his sadistic captors before being taken to a POW camp deep in the jungle, where he joins several Southeast Asians captured while assisting the Air America program, as well as two fellow Americans, both "guests" of the Laotians for nearly two years: helicopter pilot Lt. Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), a rambling, starved Air America civilian with "Quo Vadis?" stitched to the back of his tattered flight suit. Within minutes of arriving, Dieter is looking for the exit, despite Duane's and Eugene's warnings that there's no surviving the jungle until the rainy season, six months away. Undeterred, Dieter begins planning their escape while maintaining a smiling, never-say-die optimism that helps him to survive the worst of what's to come.
Once again back in his element, Herzog brings man's struggle against nature both outer and inner to the screen with an often enthralling immediacy. His leading men including Zahn, in a rare dramatic role are uniformly excellent, and Bale perfectly captures the real-life Dengler's unflappable hope and courage. To better capture the extremity of Dengler's ordeal, Bale once again underwent the kind of dramatic weight loss that shocked audiences of THE MACHINIST (2004), but he's downright plump next to the emaciated Davies, who looks like Charles Manson in the end stages of a hunger strike. Health concerns aside, the effect is startling: Their gaunt frames say more about the hardships and deprivations of a jungle prison camp than any of the dialogue or makeup ever could. leave a comment --Ken Fox