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Rescue Dawn

Riveting Vietnam War Drama

Written and directed by Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Nosferatu, Aguirre: Wrath of God) and based on the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly Herzog directed ten years ago, Rescue Dawn, a Vietnam War-era action-drama about an escape attempt from a Laotian prison, returns Herzog to where he's seemingly most comfortable, the natural world of the jungle where men either lose themselves to megalomania and barbarism or overcome physical, mental, and emotional obstacles. With riveting performances by Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, Herzog manages to make Rescue Dawn, if not one of his “best” films, then easily one of the most mainstream-accessible films of Herzog’s career as a filmmaker.

Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) left his native West Germany at the age of eighteen for the United States to become a pilot. After an unproductive initial stint in the U.S. Air Force, Dengler obtained a college degree and U.S. citizenship, and finally became a pilot for the U.S. Navy. With the Vietnam War heating up in 1966, Dengler was ordered to the Gulf of Tonkin to serve on an aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger.

Dengler and his squadron were ordered to fly their Douglas AD-6/A-1H Skyraiders, single engine, and propeller-driven attack planes over North Vietnam via neighboring Laos, illegal at the time. Crossing Laos made Dengler's mission classified. Over Laos, Dengler's plane quickly takes enemy fire. Rather than ejecting from his Skyraider, Dengler remains with the plane and crash-lands in Laos, hoping to be rescued from American forces in two or three days. He’s immediately captured.

Dieter’s captors parade him through several villages, torture him repeatedly, and then bring him to the provincial governor (François Chau). Dengler refuses sign a statement condemning U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia and so Dengler is marched to the Pathet Lao prison camp in Laos. At the camp, Dengler meets two gaunt American prisoners of war (POWs), Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), who've been in the prison for more than a year. Gene seems resigned to remain at the prison indefinitely, unrealistically hopeful that his captors will eventually release him or the United States will broker his return. Duane begins to see hope when the strong-willed Dengler declares his desire to escape into neighboring Thailand despite the many obstacles.

Returning to fictional filmmaking after a six-year absence, Werner Herzog shows a little rust early on as he introduces Dieter Dengler, the other Navy fliers (none of whom have individual character traits), Dieter’s capture and his meeting with the provincial governor. The early scenes feel schematic and underdeveloped. We don’t know much about who Dengler is or why he felt compelled to join the U.S. Navy to become a pilot. Rescue Dawn really hits its stride, though, once Dengler reaches the Laotian prison camp.

Shooting cleanly and unobtrusively, Herzog focuses on the prison’s muddy squalor, the POWs’ physical suffering, and their empty, dull routines. Once, however, Rescue Dawn leaves the prison camp behind, Herzog is even more in his element, putting the increasingly emaciated Christian Bale, who starved himself for his role in The Machinist, and Steve Zahn, taking his cue from Bale’s dietary habits, through their paces, evading the North Vietnamese, avoiding natural hazards, and finding something to eat and clean water to drink.

It’s what Herzog revels in most; men reduced to their essence, in conflict with themselves as much as with natural and man-made obstacles. And with Bale, one of the most intense, intensely dedicated actors of his generation in the lead role, Herzog has managed to craft a compelling action/drama.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars