Plot: Dieter Dengler had been in love with planes his entire life, to the point his lone dream was to be a pilot and soar in the skies. He grew up during World War II, but the destruction he witnessed didn’t dampen his passion for planes. As a teen he came to the United States and once he was old enough, enlisted in the Air Force, the most likely place he could take flight. His dream would come true and Dieter would become a pilot, but he was shot down during a mission over Vietnam. This would lead to him becoming a prison of war, where he endured a hellish experience, to say the least. But even as he was starved, abused, and tortured, Dieter never gave up hope and dreamed of once again being in the skies.
Entertainment Value: This documentary is well crafted and takes a different than most approach, though that is to be expected with Werner Herzog at the helm. You can tell Herzog feels a strong kindship to Dieter, but it doesn’t have a negative impact on cinematic experience. Dieter’s story is a powerful one and would be revisited by Herzog in Rescue Dawn, which featured Christian Bale as Dieter. As he was the first American to escape a Vietnamese prisoner of war encampment, there’s a lot here for history buffs and those interested in survival stories. The piece examines his youth and how he was so entranced with planes, then takes us through his ordeal in Vietnam and covers what followed his eventual rescue. The survival aspect is a grueling experience, as Dieter went through horrific circumstances and shares candid memories, so you learn a lot about the horrors of the prison camp. But Dieter doesn’t come across as bitter or hateful, which shows the kind of person he was.
The approach taken here is a novel one, as Dieter not only provides us his first hand accounts, but we are taken to some of the actual locations and Dieter walks us through these locales. This includes some dramatic recreations, which sound like a risk given the nature of the program, but they don’t detract from the movie and actually add some additional perspective. To see the actual places Dieter talks about is quite stirring and adds a lot to the documentary’s impact. I can see why some complain that Herzog is too close to Dieter and the piece feels like hero worship, but I think it just presents Dieter as he was, rather than some superhero vision of his life. I found Little Dieter Needs to Fly to be an insightful and powerful program.