Rescue Dawn (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Rescue Dawn, which transpires in southeast Asia during 1965, makes three things perfectly clear. First, director Werner Herzog is obsessed with the story of Dieter Dengler. Second, Herzog loves making movies about men with a tenuous grasp on sanity who are trapped deep in the jungle. Third, lead actor Christian Bale no longer has a stable weight.

Rescue Dawn is based on the life story of Dieter Dengler (Bale), one of a very few survivors who escaped from POW camps during the Vietnam War. Herzog first told Dieter's story (or, more correctly, allowed him to tell it) in his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Nearly ten years later, Herzog has returned to the material, this time making it into a feature film. When Rescue Dawn comes to DVD, I hope it will contain the earlier motion picture on a second disc as a special feature. (Little Dieter Needs to Fly is available on DVD, but not readily so.) To film Rescue Dawn, Herzog had to venture deep into the jungle - something he did more than once earlier in his career. This time, however, there was no Klaus Kinski to contend with. Instead, the lead actor is Christian Bale, who lost weight to play Dengler's part - this after losing weight to appear in The Machinist then gaining it all back (plus some) for Batman Begins. Considering the punishment his body is taking, no one can doubt Bale's devotion to his craft.

Dieter is a German-born American navy pilot who is shot down while participating in a top secret mission over Laos during 1965. He is captured by the enemy and sent to a prison camp, where he joins a motley assortment of fellow detainees. A man of action, Dieter immediately decides that he intends to escape, and begins formulating a plan. At the onset of the rainy season, he puts it into action. After he and several others make it out of the compound, they split up. The only one to accompany Dieter is Duane (Steve Zahn), whose grip on sanity is tenuous. For his part, Dieter is also having mental lapses - he hears voices and sees things. Staying alive becomes difficult. Not only do Dieter and Duane have to battle the elements, but they must avoid the Viet Cong and attempt to signal an American aircraft - not easy to do when they look like enemy soldiers from above.

Rescue Dawn pits Dieter against three daunting opponents: the North Vietnamese, nature, and (most significantly) himself. Survival in the jungle requires a strong mind and body, and Dieter must be on constant alert against giving up or losing focus. The journey is a harrowing one, and Herzog puts us right in the tangled mass of weeds and trees with Dieter. There have been a lot of movies about the Vietnam war, but none has provided exactly this perspective. There's not much fighting in Rescue Dawn. This is about all the other challenges to survival. Herzog understood when he made Little Dieter Needs to Fly that the ex-pilot's story would make an excellent feature. It's surprising it has take him so long to make that movie.

Christian Bale continues to amaze with his ability and range. He may be the most versatile under-40 performer today. No role seems to be beyond him, and he has worked with some of the best directors of his era (including, but not limited to, Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Malik, and now Herzog). He becomes Dieter, with all of the man's odd personality quirks and boundless energy. It's a great performance and requires a lot of dedication. Bale is supported by Zahn, who plays his part mostly straight but does occasionally provide comedic relief, and Jeremy Davies, who looks like a walking skeleton (think of Bale in The Machinist).

With its high level of verisimilitude, unhurried pace, and stretches of tension, Rescue Dawn represents a solid effort from Herzog (who seems to be dividing his time between documentaries and feature films) that fans of the genre should actively seek out. The film arrives in theaters during the midst of the summer blockbuster season but represents a more engaging way to spend two hours than nearly any of the louder, more heavily promoted fare.

Rescue Dawn (United States, 2006)

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
Screenplay: Werner Herzog
Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger
Music: Klaus Badelt
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1