Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn

Film review by: Witney Seibold

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            “Rescue Dawn” is an excellent film, and will likely turn out to be one of the best films of the year.

            A fictional recounting of his own 1997 film “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” the beautifully mad auteur Werner Herzog has retold the harrowing escape story of real-life Viet Nam pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down in the early days of the war and spent an extended period in a bamboo POW camp in the middle of the jungle. Dieter ended up staging a break-out with the help of the other five prisoners being held there, and trekked out into the unforgiving, enemy-laden jungle, eating snakes and fighting off madness, praying for rescue.

 

            It would be the fodder for a typically inspiring American-Army-hero story, were the film made by a typical American director, and given a chiseled heroic cast. It almost seems like the kind of story that would be a John Wayne or Steve McQueen vehicle back in the day. But Herzog has more on his mind than inspiration for U.S. Army recruitment videos. Herzog’s own interests take full frame instead: the vastness of nature and its indifference to human struggles, and the everyday human madness that leads to tragic/heroic hubris on the particularly afflicted.

 

            Dieter Dengler, as played by an excellent Christian Bale, comes across less as a put-upon everyman, and more like Tom Sawyer: he is obsessed with tales of heroism, and determined to be one of the heroes he’s heard about. The only difference is that his quixotic quests turn out to be of benefit. His attitude gets him out of trouble: Once captured, is outraged enough not to be defeated by tortures, and, once imprisoned, foolhardy enough to plan and stage an actual escape, even in the face of starvation, and the low spirits of the inmates around him.

 

            The other inmates we spend most of our time with are Gene (Jeremy Davies), Duane (Steve Zahn), and Phisit (Abhijati “Meuk” Jusakul), all excellent. Gene has been in prison for two years, and talks a lot about not rocking the boat. Duane is quietly inspired by Deiter’s escape rantings, and ends up fleeing into the jungles with him. Davies is a wonderfully subdued actor, who plays his increasing selfishness and madness with such a subtlety, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment of change. Zahn, who has spent most of his career playing funny sidekicks, now finally proves himself in a meaty role.

 

            And then there’s the jungle. “Rescue Dawn” was shot on location in the wilds of Thailand, and the jungle authenticity is clear in every frame. No picture postcard, or mythically faked Hollywood set, the jungles really are vast, beautiful, harsh, and majestic. There are many scene which show the characters arguing or going about their business in the foreground, and then Herzog will allow his camera to pan up a hill or across a field showing just how small the humans are in relation. It’s a similar trick he used in “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.” Herzog is a master, and his skill comes through in “Rescue Dawn.” It’s quite a wonderful improvement over his last film “The Wild Blue Yonder,” which had fascinating ideas, but was bloated and obtuse.

             The film wouldn’t have worked without the performance of Christian Bale, who has punished his body for more roles than any other actor of his peer group. Bale smirks and chuckles and shouts like he’s in a different movie, which is perfect for Dieter. Dieter was a hero in his own mind, so it’s natural that he behaves out of his situation. Bale throws himself into the role, and really captures the charm, character, hubris, and frustrating heroism of the man.

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Published in: on July 5, 2007 at 9:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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