Rescue Dawn is not a movie about war despite its Vietnam War setting or even so much a prisoner of war even though that’s what its hero is; rather it is a true story of a man’s will and ability to survive…anything. And with Werner Herzog behind the camera there couldn’t be a better marriage of director to subject matter. In 1966 German-born American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was excited to be deployed on a top-secret mission but the mission and the excitement were short-lived as his plane was shot down around the jungles of Laos. Before long Dengler is captured and tortured by the Laotian equivalent of Viet Cong whose leaders eventually lock him up in a makeshift cell. There he meets other POWs including Americans Gene (Jeremy Davies) and Duane (Steve Zahn) who have been held for upwards of two years. His newfound friends are emaciated and understandably delusional but Duane has managed to sustain a faint sense of reality. And when Dieter tells the group of his escape plan Duane is the only one to not ask questions. The escape is unexpectedly moved up and not without a hitch—not everyone will make it. Furthermore once they’re free from Viet Cong the men are held captive by the jungle. But Dieter’s madness winds up his greatest ally whereas others’ fatally slows them down. How does a contemporary big-time Hollywood actor transition financially psychologically professionally and linguistically from Batman to Grizzly Man (with a pit stop en route as a 19th century English magician)? Only Christian Bale could ever answer that. His filmography may register all over the radar but Bale is one of the most consistently great actors of his generation. And although Dawn might not have the Oscar pedigree or campaign power of a studio movie Bale is nomination worthy. A dialect virtuoso the way Benicio Del Toro is considered to be Bale—who’s British—is spot-on with the subtle nuances and fluctuating enunciation one might expect from a German-American or any foreign-born American. But more amazing is his mental transformation into Dieter a survivor who won’t take death for an answer. If Bale gets an Oscar nod so should Zahn a journeyman actor always associated with the comedic-sidekick role. It’s dramatic sidekick for Zahn this time and he wears it well from the beyond-scruffy beard on his face to the transparent hope on his face. Rounding out the best ensemble cast of 2007 is Davies (Saving Private Ryan) whose chameleonic career reads like Bale’s—not to mention the fact that Davies’ startling weight loss for this role eerily resembles Bale’s for The Machinist. Davies’ Gene although a somewhat minor character is the bony face of spirit-battered POWs; it’s scary and occasionally perversely comedic to watch his hallucinations unfold. Forty-plus years into his career legendary German writer-director Werner Herzog is as enigmatic as ever—and yet so predictable. It’s as if he remains somehow unaware that he keeps tackling the same stories about males who like him are obsessed; or in some abstractly Freudian way his filmmaking is the ultimate exercise in narcissism for exploring versions of himself. Whatever the explanation Herzog continues along this unwavering path in Dawn and his obsession is our gain. Herzog’s latest finds him just as smitten with his protagonist Dieter as with his de facto antagonist the jungle. For Dieter the writer in Herzog crafted someone who takes on different forms: a sponge to his environment an oxymoronic superhero of a human an entity that is everything but scared. And it’s highly fascinating to watch—thanks to an adept Christian Bale—Dieter go from a brash young man to a man of the wild to briefly a madman—but again never a scared or desperate man. That sort of attention to detail to a character could only come from a filmmaker who doesn’t make a movie unless the story is close to his heart. As a director Herzog pays as much respect to the jungle here as he did the bears in his Oscar-nominated documentary Grizzly Man. For even at Dawn’s most harrowing the jungle is soothing. Which is probably Werner Herzog’s dictum on nature in general.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.