Rescue Dawn

September, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Werner Herzog

Starring:Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies

The movies of Werner Herzog are surely among the most peripatetic creations of any living director. Long considered one of the industry’s best, this 65 year old German filmmaker has over 50 titles to his credit since making his debut in 1964 with Game in the Sand, a short film shot in black and white. Working in every conceivable genre and often with the magnetically-deranged actor Klaus Kinski, (Fitzcarraldo, Woyzeck) Entertainment Weekly crowned Herzog the 35th greatest director of all time, (recognition so absurdly precise it must surely have amused him). Working here in English, the director tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American Navy pilot shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War who managed to escape from his captors and survive in the jungle until his eventual rescue by helicopter. Despite Herzog’s richly-deserved reputation for the maddeningly obscure, Rescue is a straight-forward tale of heroism that neatly combines the derring-do of a war film with heartbreakingly vivid characterizations of the small group of U.S. servicemen with whom Dengler made his escape.  The result is a piercing analysis of the physical and mental brutality of combat served up ostensibly as an action movie.

Christian Bale, the Welsh actor who’s done everything from the bizarre, (American Psycho, The Machinist) to the blatantly escapist (Batman Begins) plays Dengler as a combination Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn, his surprise at the harsh treatment meted out by his captors conjoined to the devious techniques he deploys against them and the beguiling manner in which he convinces his fellow prisoners to participate in his apparently impossible dream of freedom. Duane, a fellow P.O.W., (the usually comedic Steve Zahn) falls completely under Dieter’s spell and follows him unhesitatingly into peril; but another prisoner from Oregon, (“just call me Gene from Eugene”) remains convinced that an armistice is eminent and with paranoid duplicity, nearly destroys his fellow countrymen. 

Herzog’s films often examine men reacting to the dangers presented by their encounters with nature at its most hostile; from treacherous jungle expeditions, (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) to deliberate encounters with potentially lethal animals, (The Grizzly Man) the director seems fascinated by the often fatal lure of extremely dangerous human activity and the motivations of those drawn to it. If Dengler finds himself in a predicament not deliberately chosen for its deadly possibilities, his adamant decision to risk everything to free himself presents Herzog with yet another opportunity to study the human capacity for dealing with life threatening circumstances. 

As Dengler, Bale employs a faintly hollowed-out accent suggesting the speech of someone long estranged from his native tongue; by combining this subtle accent with ability to convey puckish courage and obvious concern for his fellow prisoners, the actor fashions an appealingly magnetic hero. Zahn’s role as dutiful/devoted comrade in arms is perfectly pitched, but it’s Jeremy Davies as Gene who steals the movie; this apparently diffident actor, who first came to public attention in Saving Private Ryan, portrays Gene as a crafty madman perfectly willing to sabotage the very men responsible for his own survival. Davies delivers his lines with the casual certainty of the truly demented, someone pushed over the edge of sanity by the brutal circumstances in which he finds himself. He’s the antithesis of Herzog’s idealized man of action and as such,  Dengler’s most dangerous challenge.

Herzog employs his lush Thailand locations to perfection and the crudely-built detention centers in which the action takes place gain visual credibility from their primitive, rough-hewn simplicity. Given the movie’s intimate focus, the cinematography is appropriately straightforward and constrained, while aerial shots of Dengler’s bombing runs demonstrate modern warfare’s capacity for mechanized annihilation in all its frightening horror. 

Rescue Dawn carries the stamp of authenticity from its casually flip beginning aboard an aircraft carrier to its rather emotionally contrived ending, and audiences will be hard pressed not to cheer for this compelling tale of personal courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

The verdict? A gripping story, delivered in knockout style; see it.   

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