In 1997, Werner Herzog shot a remarkable documentary film entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly which allowed Dieter Dengler to explain, in his own words, his experiences in Vietnam. The film did a fantastic job of painting a portrait, explaining how events from Dengler's childhood instilled in him a yearning to become a pilot which lead to his enrollment in the U.S. Air Force after his immigration from Germany to the United States. Ten years later, Herzog returns to Dengler's story, this time to shoot a feature film concentrating on the six month period in which Dengler was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp in the jungles of Laos.
When the movie begins, Dengler (played amazingly well by Christian Bale of The Machinist and Batman Begins) is sitting comfortably in an American aircraft carrier with his fellow pilots. They're briefed on a top secret mission, shown some training films, and then let loose to carry out their mission. Dengler is shot down fairly quickly and amazingly enough he survives the crash landing and heads out into the jungle to hide. It isn't long before he's captured by some armed Laotians who take him to a P.O.W. camp overseen by the Vietnamese.
Here Dengler is imprisoned with a few Air America pilots and two other American military men, Duane (Steve Zahn of Sahara) and Eugene (Jeremy Davies of Helter Skelter and Dogville). The three of them form a strange friendship and soon Dieter is trying to devise a way for them to escape. Duane hesitantly agrees but Gene is adamant that U.S. helicopters are going to arrive any minute now to whisk them off to safety. After some debate, the prisoners soon come to the realization that time is running out. Dieter and the rest of the men launch their escape plan and soon find themselves faced with an even more frightening enemy than the Vietnamese soldiers... the jungle itself.
What starts off as a fairly typical war movie soon turns into a grim, gritty and completely believable tale of one man's refusal to submit to his captors. Dengler is submitted to some grisly torture (at one point he has a hornet's nest strapped to his body while he hangs upside down) and completely inhospitable living conditions. He and his fellow prisoners are fed only enough food to just barely keep them alive and they are routinely abused by their captors. Once they make their escape, a few plot twists find Dengler in even worse conditions than those he was subjected to inside the camp when he and Duane are forced to go it alone through the thick of the jungle, all the while having to remain alert in hopes of spotting an American plane or chopper overhead and in hopes of avoiding enemy patrols in the area. Those thinking that the film might play out like Missing In Action or Rambo: First Blood Part II will find themselves sorely mistaken as Herzog carefully avoids glamorizing or sensationalizing any of what Dengler and his cohorts go through. Although the opening fifteen minutes contain a fair bit of semi-stylized action the rest of the film is quite restrained in that regard - this film is far from your typical shoot'em up.
Performances are excellent all the way around. Bale, quite the chameleon, obviously shed some weight for his part as he did in The Machinist and his transformation from macho newbie pilot to near-broken prisoner of war is fantastic. Davies, who seems to have a knack for playing wigged out weirdos, is solid as 'Eugene from Eugene, Oregon' and Zahn certainly holds his own as the sympathetic Duane. The supporting cast is uniformly strong and no one seems out of place in the various bit parts that pepper the film.
In wonderfully typical Herzog fashion the films pays a lot of attention to the landscape and the environment and as important to the human conflict which makes up the story is the conflict which occurs between man and his surroundings. As in masterpieces such as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, the entire film is shot on location (or at least close to it as the picture was shot in nearby Thailand) and for good reason. This very definitely adds an air of authenticity to the picture and the jungle proves to be as important to the movie as the performers. The environment is savage and unkind, performers are literally lost amongst the thickness of the natural vegetation and it doesn't look like anything here has been softened up for the actors - their struggles against the jungle look very real indeed, and it is perhaps the fact that they really were out there dealing with this mess that makes their performances so believable.
Although the ending seems a bit rushed and more than a little overly patriotic, the fact of the matter is that from all accounts, Dieter Dengler really did go through the nightmare that Herzog shows us in this picture and that, perhaps more importantly to the core of the movie, that he survived. As such, some of what could be misconstrued as flag-waving bravura is simply what one could assume is an honest depiction of how this particular chapter of Dengler's live was brought to a close.