Tied in Plain Sight: Rescue Dawn’s Bale learns the ropes as a POW.

A wild-eyed, driven visionary confronts the jungle: The précis of Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog’s first widely distributed nondocumentary film in 25 years, could also describe some of his best movies. So why does this taut adventure tale, in which a German-American pilot survives captivity, torture, and an escape through the Laotian wilderness, register as a lesser effort? There are already divergent theories on that, but one issue is that Herzog’s latest puts him in competition with his previous work.

Herzog is probably best known for 1972’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God, in which the mercurial Klaus Kinski plays a Spanish conquistador who loses his dreams—and his marbles—while negotiating a wild Andean river. A decade later, the writer-director ventured to a nearby wilderness for Fitzcarraldo, another period piece featuring madness, Kinski, and an untamed river.These films overshadow Rescue Dawn, which is a tidier, more predictable yarn. The new movie also suffers in comparison to another, lesser-seen Herzog film, 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In that documentary, the director introduced the actual Dieter Dengler, who in Rescue Dawn is played by the fearless (if insufficiently crazed) Christian Bale.

Like Herzog, Dengler was a young boy in Germany during World War II, and he enjoyed the experience—or at least part of it. Little Dieter wanted to be one of the American pilots who was strafing and bombing his hometown. He emigrated to the U.S., struggled to become an Air Force pilot, and was sent to a carrier off the coast of Vietnam. His first combat mission was a secret 1966 flight over Laos, from which he didn’t return for six months. He spent part of that period in a Pathet Lao stockade, where food was scarce and brutality common, and the rest trekking through the underbrush, at first with a fellow POW.

Rescue Dawn restricts itself to Dieter’s time on the carrier and in Laos, although the downed pilot does fill in his backstory in conversations with the other two Americans in the Pathet Lao camp, Duane (oddball Steve Zahn) and Gene (the even odder Jeremy Davies). Dieter quickly begins planning their breakout, though Gene disapproves. (Embodying the American optimism that was still possible in ’66, he thinks they’re about to be released.) After one of the Laotian prisoners overhears a plan to kill the POWs—the guards, who are also starving, are plotting their own escape—Dieter initiates his plan, which sort of works. But rather than stick together, the POWs scatter, and only Dieter and Duane ally to make their way downstream in search of sanctuary in Thailand.

Because it ends with a hero’s welcome aboard Dieter’s ship, Rescue Dawn has been criticized as being Americanized, a sellout to Hollywood simplification. The conclusion of the pilot’s ordeal is certainly less downbeat than the fate of Aguirre, or many other Herzog protagonists. But it is, like the rest of the movie, approximately true. And while Dieter triumphs as a U.S. pilot, he remains alienated from the people who’ve adopted him. His wide grin combines amazement and irony, marking him an outsider as surely as Bale’s Welsh-German-American accent. Dieter flies, and survives, for himself, not for the United States. (Of course, viewers who haven’t seen Little Dieter Needs to Fly will probably see Bale’s Dieter as a less complex character than those who’ve watched the actual Dengler, who died in 2001.)

If Rescue Dawn seems slicker and simpler than most Herzog features, it’s partly because of Klaus Badelt’s music, which is as overbearing as most Hollywood scores. There’s also the matter of Bale, who’s as extreme as Kinski but with a very different disposition. While Kinski’s struggles with Herzog yielded onscreen tension, Bale is weirdly blithe about risky thespian behavior, which for this film included eating worms, taking a bite out of a live snake, and losing dangerous amounts of weight. (He pursued a similar diet for 2004’s The Machinist.)

Yet Herzog, who now lives in Los Angeles, hasn’t simply made a contemporary Hollywood popcorn movie. For one thing, the film looks more 1966 than 2007. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger’s hues are oversaturated and unnatural, suggesting a flick that would have played at drive-ins during LBJ’s presidency rather than something you’d see at a megaplex today. The director also calls on old pals (including Teutonic trance-rockers Popul Vuh) and old themes, if not his old intensity. Ultimately, the movie is Herzog’s attempt to sell a great story to a wider audience. It does that well enough, but Rescue Dawn will truly be a success if it sends people to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, in which Dengler tells his own tale even better.