Review: Rescue Dawn
PLOT: In 1997, eccentric filmmaker Werner Herzog released the documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, which told the story of German born Dieter Dengler, who after seeing his town annihilated by American fighter planes during WWII, became obsessed with the idea of becoming a pilot. At 18, he enlisted in the Air Force, and while on an early mission at the beginnings of Vietnam, was shot down in Laos and became a captive in a harsh P.O.W. camp. Now, a decade later, the director is again telling the story - in a more conventional, narrative format - with RESCUE DAWN. (Or: Werner Herzogs RAMBO)
REVIEW: Was there ever a better marriage of director and actor than Werner Herzog and Christian Bale? Herzog is a notoriously demanding and intense director, who often becomes as obsessed as his (real-life and fictional) subjects - usually equally intense men who court peril and risk sanity to achieve a single-minded goal. Christian Bale utterly shocked the movie-going public with his grotesque withering down to a mere 120 pounds to play the frail, disturbed MACHINIST. Immediately after, he bulked up ridiculously to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in BATMAN BEGINS. The man literally gives his body over to make movies. Seems like Herzogs kind of guy
RESCUE DAWN wastes absolutely no time getting started. After almost-beautiful APOCALYPSE NOW-style footage of a countryside being blown apart by bombs, we meet cocky Dieter Dengler (Bale), who is even more all-American than Tom Cruise in TOP GUN (in fact, youd never know he lived in Germany for his first 18 years if it wasnt mentioned). After watching a hokey the-more-you-know type documentary about surviving in the jungle if shot down (he really shouldnt have laughed so much during it), Dieter is sent on his first mission: a classified bombing raid that he cant even tell his fiancé about in a letter (this is 1965, so the war hasnt officially broken out yet).
Of course, this being a Hollywood movie, hes almost immediately shot down and taken captive - oh thats right, this really happened. If the experience hadnt been so harrowing, Dieter probably wouldve slapped himself in the forehead and cursed the irony of it all...
After being tortured by his Laotian captors in unique, icky ways (I dont even think Jigsaw would tie someone upside down and strap and ant-hive to their face), Dieter is taken to a Vietcong bigshot who gives him a chance at freedom, provided he signs a document denouncing Americas efforts in the country. Dieter refuses, with the same cheerful bravado, because he loves his country. It gave him his wings.
Soon enough, Dieter is shipped off to a remote P.O.W. camp, where he joins five other prisoners; two of them American (Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies), three Vietnamese (Galen Yuen, Abhijati Jusakul, Cahiyan Chunsuttiwat). Outside of the fact that theyve been holed up there for at least 2 years and are on the verge of completely cracking up (in the case of Davies, hes pretty much there already), their pasts before imprisonment is never explored, but then again, neither is Dieters. He never quite loses the bright-eyed idealism that he exhibits when we first meet him - his optimism is his only necessary character trait. So it goes that his cellmates current loose-grip on sanity and hope is all we really need to know about them.
The following section of RESCUE DAWN has been explored in countless war camp films - the men bond, joke, fight amongst themselves, ultimately plan escape - but the details here are particularly vivid and uncomfortable. Their feet and hands are brutally constrained at night; their days are spent almost exclusively sitting in one place, staring off aimlessly; their short-tempered guards are equally insane with hunger and frustration; their food rations shrink by the day - so much so that eventually they are forced to eat a big ol bowl of grubs and worms (which Bale does with skin-crawling enthusiasm. You get the sense that this was probably Herzogs favorite scene to film.). Its a bit slow for those expecting GREAT ESCAPE-style shenanigans, but effectively transporting for those who get caught up in this all-too-real plight. Herzog is a patient, methodical director: even when the P.O.W.s escape attempt comes, its done with restraint and a minimum of fireworks. (which is not to say that it isnt suspenseful, because it is.)
Bale is fantastic. He once again pulls the MACHINIST routine, although its even more impressive here because he doesnt start out so dangerously thin. Its like he withers away before our eyes. But its HIS eyes that make the performance. We buy Dieters almost narcissistic need to free himself, to get back to his ship and probably do the whole thing over again. Wearing an innocently goofy smile throughout the ordeal, Bales Dieter Dengler isnt a scheming misfit like Steve McQueen in GREAT ESCAPE or William Holden in STALAG 17... Hes genuinely in love with his country - a poster boy for the war effort and America - and its impossible not to get caught up in his infectious exuberance.
Zahn ditches the stoner-doofus persona hes well known for and fully immerses himself in the role of Duane, who becomes Dieters closest friend. He still manages a few moments of levity (as when he nervously, orgasmically describes the contents of his dream refrigerator: lots of sweets), but Duane is a haunted, frightened individual, who clings to the perpetual hope Dieter lives with, but cant quite manage on his own. Its the type of unexpected performance that garners award attention. Davies accomplishes his own astonishing transformation (he makes the skeletal Bale look like Marlon Brando), but unfortunately hes still channeling Charles Manson (he played him in a t.v. movie some years back), as his muttering, slightly malevolent Gene - while perhaps authentic - is a little too theatrically crazy.
But overall, RESCUE DAWN is a gripping film: sincere, sobering, harsh (but not torturous), and amazingly, not at all a downer... Its a terrible cliche to say a film is about the triumph of the spirit, but dammit, this one really is.
My rating 8/10 -- Eric Walkuski
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