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Rescue Dawn   B

MGM Pictures / Gibraltar Films

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies.

Review by Rob Vaux

Rescue Dawn has a very odd genesis: it was adapted by Werner Herzog from his own documentary, which recounts the tale of a German-American pilot shot down in Vietnam. Why he chose to retell it in fictional form is a bit of a mystery... though the presence of star Christian Bale will undoubtedly attract a wider audience, and comparing the documentary (entitled Little Dieter Needs to Fly) with this effort can make for a fascinating exercise. In and of itself, the film is solid viewing, if not quite on par with Herzog's best. It struggles hardest in shaking off the POW clichés that its narrative must embrace. Countless similar stories have appeared onscreen, set in every conceivable era and marked by the same harrowing details that Herzog conjures here. Rescue Dawn gains distinctiveness by depoliticizing the context, which allows the director's standard themes of man in conflict with an uncaring world to come into the forefront. Though set during Vietnam, it keeps the specifics about the war to a minimum and refrains from overt political judgment. Instead, its jungle setting becomes a universe unto itself -- treacherous, hostile, and happy to snuff the life out of anyone who presumes to challenge it.

But like so many of Herzog's protagonists, Dieter Dengler (Bale) refuses to go quietly. As a child in Germany, he dreamed of flying, and when he emigrated to the United States at an early age, he saw those dreams come true. Now a military pilot attached to a top-secret mission -- bombing targets in Laos in early 1965 -- he's shot down on his very first run and captured by a gang of skeevy locals ostensibly working for the communists. They imprison him in a fresh slice of hell deep in the primeval bog, where he meets fellow Americans Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies, doing an uncanny impression of Charles Manson), as well as a few hapless Vietnamese prisoners. Escape is impossible, they assure him, and yet as he observes his surroundings, he begs to differ. Their captors number only a few: neighborhood thugs lacking the discipline of the VC or NVA. Dieter spent time in a tool shop before the war and picked up a few skills there -- like being able to turn a nail into a lock pick or build a periscope out of an old mirror and a stick. And their bamboo prison has a few weak points where a clever man can find a way out, so long as he's willing to risk a horrible death if he gets caught.

The scenario unfolds with clinical, understated verve, discarding the cheap theatrics of earlier POW films without lessening the overall impact. The torment of imprisonment seeps in slowly, rather than being thrust at us in sudden bursts of brutality. We see the horrors, yes, but far more chilling than physical torture are the faces of Duane and Eugene, who battle daily to keep from succumbing to insanity. Against that, Dieter's strength and optimism seem almost equally insane. Bale adopts a strangely lilting speech pattern -- presumably matching the real man he portrays -- which he matches with a cockeyed smile and a natural exuberance that feels slightly unsettling in such grim surroundings. But as the camp begins to take its toll on him, his positive outlook turns into an almost fanatical belief that he can and will escape.

Against that, Herzog paints another of his patented pictures of nature in all its callous and indifferent glory. "The jungle is the real prison," Duane tells his new bunkmate, and Rescue Dawn spares nothing in revealing how daunting the Laotian landscape can be beneath its verdant greenery. Within it, the prison guards become mere extensions of the surroundings -- clad in rags and devoid of the politically charged imagery that the VC and NVA have come to represent. Dieter and his cohorts have been left here to die, the film tells us; all they need to do is wait. Herzog sees the nobility in resisting that fate, but also acknowledges the overwhelming probability that his protagonist's desperate ingenuity may be in vain. His emphasis on heartless naturalism takes an intriguing turn with a series of fascinating POV shots that quietly enhance our connection to Dieter, while lending Rescue Dawn a much-needed sense of visual distinction.

The importance of that becomes apparent as the escape plan comes to fruition. Both it and the subsequent trek through hostile rain forest have appeared in myriad other films before. Herzog seems unwilling to dispense with the stereotypes; instead, his approach simply shades them in a different light, avoiding both left-wing hand-wringing and right-wing jingoism in favor of simpler and more universal themes. A strange coda at the end presents the only hint of political overtones -- contrasting sinister government agents with the brave and loyal troops they so callously exploit -- leaving the remainder a quietly effective meditation on human tenacity. We create our own hell in our inhuman treatment of each other, but we're only reflecting the savagery of the natural world around us -- a world we can transcend only with the greatest difficulty. Rescue Dawn exemplifies the virtues of that transcendence without sugarcoating the possibility of failure. The game may be rigged, Herzog coldly informs us, but it's the only game in town... and sometimes, just sometimes, we can still find a way to beat it.

Review published 07.16.2007.

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