When Reality Meets Celluloid

Last night DKC and I watched Rescue Dawn, a flick “based on a true story” about a US fighter pilot who got shot down in Laos during the Vietnam War, was taken prisoner, and then escaped. It stars Christian Bale and is directed by Werner Herzog, so it’s got a good pedigree. The film itself was enjoyable, but something felt off to me throughout it. I kept being very aware of the fact that this was a movie–the characters didn’t seem consistent . . . I don’t know. It’s hard for me to put a finger on, and I’m making a bigger deal of it here than I ought to, considering I’m giving the film a 3 star rating (although it was almost a 2.5). I recommend seeing it. I just don’t recommend you watching it and then thinking that you now understand what “really happened.” It turns out that Herzog took extreme liberties with the story, turning characters from heroes to lunatics in the film, essentially building up the main character into an uber-hero at the expense of the other people in the film. In a fictional work, that seems fine.

But what about in a work that’s billed as being based in reality?

The brother of the aforementioned maligned hero has taken issue with this, going so far as to create a website that clarifies what his brother did/did not do. After having read it and seen the movie, I think he’s got a really good case. His brother didn’t deserve to be portrayed the way he was.

What gets my goat is that Herzog defends the end of the movie by saying “that’s what really happened.” That door swings both ways, buddy. You can’t on the one hand be slavish to reality at times, only to completely abandon it at others. I think this is why the film felt off to me–because it was reality being warped into a story that didn’t quite fit together.

In the end, I think anyone watching a Hollywood film hoping to understand history better is yearning for a burning. At best, you can get an accurate portrayal of someone’s perception of history. Let’s face it: we can never recreate the past or the present. You and I can have a conversation, then try to reconstruct it word for word the next day, and we’ll both likely have differences in what we remember. And that’s with something as simple as a conversation. Think about huge events, portrayed decades later. What is “true” in that situation?

I love movies based on reality. Cinderella Man. Seabiscuit. Rocky. (Well, not Rocky, but we can all wish, can’t we?) But I think that directors have some obligation if they slap a “based on a true story” promotion on the film, and I think we as the audience have an obligation to take it all with a grain of salt.

But enough about what I think–what do you think?

5 thoughts on “When Reality Meets Celluloid”

  1. I’m a New Historicist. Our portrayals of history say far more about us, the creators and historians, than they say about the actual events or the people who lived them. It’s not possible to get out of our own ideologies, so why not just admit that we can’t and embrace them?
    In short, yes, I think the director is wrong to say “but that’s what really happened” and viewers would be wrong to believe him.

  2. Yeah–it’s interesting. One of the reviews I read on IMDB was getting mad at other people for “politicizing” the movie, saying that we should just ignore whatever themes it was portraying (pro or anti war) and just enjoy it. That’s stupid to me–the movie is the movie, complete with its themes. And to ignore a strong theme is to ignore a large part of the movie.

  3. I agree with you on that, too. The themes in the film are going to contribute to the overall film experience, even if those themes say more about the political ideas of the creator of the film than those involved in the original incident.
    But then, I know lots of people who are like: dude. stop thinking about the film. you’re ruining my experience.
    So the review you read might have been from one of those people. Some people can only enjoy things when they turn their brains off. I’m not all that interested in that kind of interpretation, though. (Though I’ll admit some things are only enjoyable until you think about them, I tend to avoid those.)

  4. And that’s the thing with this movie. It was certainly ambitions–with pretensions of accuracy. It was supposed to make you think. If you want a brainless POW escape movie, “Behind Enemy Lines” will do wonders. That wasn’t what this movie was trying to be.

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