Written by Caballero Oscuro
Rescue Dawn takes viewers behind enemy lines during the Vietnam War, focusing on one American POW as he attempts to escape his captors and return to friendly territory. As Dieter Dengler, Christian Bale undergoes another dramatic weight loss similar to his efforts in The Machinist, seemingly inhabiting the character body and soul. This commitment to realism, coupled with director Werner Herzog’s extensive background in gritty documentary pictures, give the film a dramatic heft that elevates it above its straightforward yet heart-wrenching story.
Interestingly, this is Herzog’s second pass at the story, as he originally filmed a documentary about the real Dengler in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. His intimacy with the story as well as his unorthodox and immersive filming methods contribute to a dramatic recreation that ends up seeming more like a documentary than a fictionalized drama. Where other directors might seek to stage some of the more unsavory scenes, it’s clear that Herzog called on his actors to fully inhabit their roles and wallow in the desperation of their surroundings without any creature comforts. He also avoids any kind of patriotic grandstanding except for a brief stumble near the end, almost completely eliminating any dramatic crutches like slo-mo, montages, or swelling soundtrack cues. Viewers are left with an unblinking and unadulterated look at the desperate situation faced by its unusual central character.
Although Dengler flies for the US Navy, he’s far from the boy next door. As a German immigrant, he’s even more out of place in Vietnam than his comrades, never quite fitting in with them but continuing to pursue his love of flying. When he’s shot down and eventually deposited in a gloomy POW camp, he refuses to follow the accepted process of abandoning hope and counting days until the war ends. Instead, he decides to rally his fellow prisoners to attempt a group escape. He’s something like a MacGyver character, always figuring out how to use the limited materials at hand to his advantage, and he never allows the camp to bring his spirits down no matter how depressing and degrading it becomes. It’s a bit distracting at first determining if the normally dependable Bale is just having difficulty grasping his character, but eventually it becomes clear that Dengler is, as one of his prison mates describes him, a “strange bird”, a very quirky loner following the beat of his own drum.
Steve Zahn appears as a fellow POW and puts in a surprisingly accomplished dramatic performance, completely obliterating any preconceived notions about his usual predilection for fluffy comedic roles. Jeremy Davies also impresses in his role as a cracked POW who is just skin and bones, a transformation that makes him virtually unrecognizable. The rest of the cast is rounded out with unfamiliar but believable actors who heighten the realism of the story.