If you are looking for an adventure film that is powerful, moving, downright thrilling, and free of any attempts at a twist, Rescue Dawn may be the movie for you. Quite frankly, this is one of the best films of the year.
It provides an extraordinary tale of spirit and survival, the story of one man and his desire to escape a terrible situation that he never suspected he'd be in. It engages the audience, drawing you in and holding you at complete attention for its duration. Well, that is how it affected me, anyway.
With Rescue Dawn, director Werner Herzog delivers a fascinating film, which pays testimony to the strength of human spirit and its ability to adapt to ever-changing circumstances in order to survive.
Rescue Dawn is based on the story of Dieter Dengler, whose story was previously told in the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (also directed by Werner Herzog). Herzog is a director whom I have little experience with, though I have read of his penchant for the crossing of reality and fantasy in both his fictional and documentary features.
Knowing that, it is not hard to believe that portions of Dengler's tale have been dramatized to increase suspense. In particular, I have read of significant changes to the character of Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), one of Dengler's fellow prisoners who is shown as being a bit loony and believing release is imminent. I do not believe that Herzog was disrespecting his memory, or attempting to portray him in an unflattering light. It feels like a valid portrayal of a man who has endured imprisonment, torture, and severe malnutrition for more than two years. I have a feeling I would be a little looney as well if I had been subjected to what he went through. Before going too far down this path, let's get back to the story at hand.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-born American, was a child in Germany during World War II when he became determined to become a pilot. His family emigrated from Germany to the US where he joined the Navy for citizenship and the opportunity to fly. Fast forward to 1965, Vietnam is fast escalating and Dengler is taking part in a top secret bombing run over Laos. In this, his very first mission, he is shot down and captured. Taken to a prison in the middle of the jungle, he quickly learns that the flimsy bamboo fences are more for aesthetics than detention. The real prison is the jungle surrounding them.
The film moves along at a nice, even pace. This is no action film nor is it about sensationalizing the tale into some grand adventure. Rescue Dawn unfolds giving us a glimpse into the day to day lives of the captured, the relationships that develop between them, and Dengler's unwavering spirit. To go into too much detail would rob you of a great experience. It does not offer any new direction in the war genre, but I do not believe that was Herzog's intent. I have a feeling that this was more about Herzog wanting to tell the dramatic story of the man he befriended while making Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The result is not an accurate portrayal of events, but is likely more accurate in tone.
Werner Herzog's film is beautiful in the way the story tells itself. Nothing is forced as the facts come out. Sure, those facts may be fudged a bit, but everything plays in such a manner that it unfolds in a naturalistic, believable manner. Now take that tone, and combine it with location shooting in the jungle. This is no set, you can watch as the actors struggle through the thick greenery and with an unforgiving nature that becomes a living character of its own. The foliage proves to be as dangerous an enemy as the pursuing Vietcong. It is shot beautifully by Herzog and DP Peter Zeitlinger, the color and danger jump right off the screen.
Once you move past that, you can take a look at the fantastic performances. Christian Bale puts it all on the line. He flat out amazes in his portrayal of Dengler. Simply put, Bale is one of the finest actors working today with a true dedication to his craft. Watching him work is very moving, as he maintains his determination, retains his sanity, and means what he says when he claims not having found a man who scares him. Likewise praise can be given to both Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies as fellow prisoners Duane and Gene. Both hit all the right notes in their portrayals.
Bottom line. Wonderful movie. Great acting and an involving story filled with suspense. There are a couple of scenes that will really get to you, I know my defenses were weakened at a few points. Regardless of how entirely accurate it is, Herzog made the film that he wanted to make and it is a wonderful tribute to his friend and to the strength of the human spirit to survive in the face of such daunting odds.