Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
MPAA Rating: (for some sequences of intense war violence and torture)
Running Time: 2:06
Release Date: 7/4/07 (limited); 7/13/07 (wider); 7/27/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
By the time they are ready to escape from their captors and tormentors, they look like shadows of men, and all of them, save one, are. The exception is Dieter Dengler, a pilot in the US Navy who spent six months of his life evading, in the state of, or escaping capture and torture in Laos in 1966. Werner Herzog once had Dengler tell his story in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but now Herzog elaborates on details he has learned since then with the dramatized account Rescue Dawn. Dengler's story is of a person with the kind of inexorable spirit that they make movies about. He takes pain with a grin and a laugh. He plans while others resign. He never yields his optimism. Herzog's admiration for the man and his story is apparent. Beyond the fact that he's helped tell it twice, he approaches the dramatized version in a completely straightforward, sometimes very raw way. There are no philosophical musings present here. His capturing of nature on film is still haunting, but his focus is more on the inherent danger to Dengler and his fellow inmates. Rescue Dawn, then, is a fine story by an artist who, for better or worse, has restrained himself because of the material.
It is 1965. Vietnam is still known as a conflict. The United States has started bombings in Laos, and the film opens with bombs falling and exploding in slow motion juxtaposed with Klaus Badelt's soaring orchestrations. In late January of 1966, Dengler (Christian Bale) is aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin preparing for his first mission. He and others are to disrupt supply routes into North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. It is a completely classified mission. On February 1, his plane is shot down. He survives the crash and is subsequently chased by the Pathet Lao. He eludes capture at first but is eventually caught and brought to a village. They tie him by his limbs to the ground, and he soils himself after. He is tied to a tree as soldiers shoot at him. He has a chance to sign a statement against the United States and refuses, for which he undergoes more torture. He's hung upside down from a tree with an ant nest tied to his face, bound and placed in a well. Eventually, he is brought to a camp, where he meets five other POWs, including Americans Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), who has been at the camp for two and a half years.
Politics are out the window here. Dengler flies with the Navy because they let him fly. He didn't want to go to war, "I saw enough of that as a child," he tells his captor, referring to his growing up in Germany during World War II. Instead, the film focuses on the day-to-day of the camp, the way the inmates are shackled together at night, use a dog to heal sores, fight over a label that still contains an odor from a care package received two year before. Dengler decides to escape his first night there, but the other prisoners are still convinced that political powers beyond their knowledge will arrange their release. Herzog's camera alternates between co-conspirator and omniscient presenceódocumenting Dengler's plan to take the guards prisoner and seeing the wide, harsh jungle that surrounds them all. They get free of their chains at night and lay out their strategy with rocks. Dengler fashions knives out of cartridge shells for his prison mates and tries to convince them all to save some of the limited rice they're given for the trek through the jungle on their way to freedom in Thailand (where the film was actually shot). Soon, rice is spare for prisoners and guards, and maggots become the main course.
The first part is entirely man vs. man, prisoners vs. guards, and Eugene, played by the frighteningly emaciated and psychologically shattered Jeremy Davies, serves as the conflict within the group of imprisoned comrades. Once the plan is put into action, Dengler and Duane remain steadfast to battle it out against nature. Here's where Herzog recalls the raw filmmaking of his past. Dengler and Duane, played quite effectively by Steve Zahn as a man who's gained back hope only to slowly lose it again, brave a mudslide, travel upriver on a makeshift raft, and have to pick off leeches. Herzog films these scenes au naturale and even throws in a thematically defining shot of Dengler standing in front of a jungle backdrop that towers over him. There's a surreal scene at an abandoned village overgrown with the environment where Dengler and Duane's hope begins to fail, and eventually Dengler is alone, hallucinating and hunting a snake for food. Christian Bale's dedication to the role is laudable, doing all of the things mentioned above for real, losing weight, and overall centering the character with a kind of crazy optimism. Herzog's script is occasionally lazy with character details, tossing them out as need be, but Bale's performance is Dengler in the situation at hand.
Rescue Dawn lacks the intellectual stimulation of a lot of Herzog's films, and it's too distant from and forthright with the story for an emotional impact. The last scenes, bringing Dengler back home for a hero's welcome, are unnecessary and out of place, but the film up until that point tells an absorbing story of hope in the face of hardship with considerable skill.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.