If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Werner Herzog of it’s being mainstream (everyone who just clicked onto IMDB thinking, “Werner Who?” just proved my point), so fans may be surprised to see his name attached to a big summer blockbuster like Rescue Dawn. Adapted from Herzog’s Emmy-nominated 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn hovers between your average POW-escape movie and an art-house pic that will appeal to, but not necessarily satisfy, both types of audiences.
The film opens in 1965, as cocky Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-born U.S. Air Force Lieutenant, prepares for his maiden combat flight. Forced to watch a painfully obvious instructive video about surviving in enemy territory, Dengler shamelessly heckles the film, unaware that the next few days will be a lesson in irony.
During his top-secret bombing raid over Laos, Dengler is shot down almost immediately upon entering enemy territory. Barely injured from the crash, Dengler struggles to survive in the vast jungle until he is captured by a squad of rag-tag Laotian soldiers. When Dengler refuses to sign anything condemning the country that gave him wings, he endures seemingly endless torture before they transport him to a bamboo prison in the middle of nowhere. There, Dangler meets two fellow Americans, the broken-spirited Duane (Steve Zahn) and the quirky Gene from Eugene (Jeremy Davies), who desperately clings to the belief that they will be freed. Dengler suffers the grotesque conditions of the camp for about two seconds before deciding to escape, baffling his companions who oddly after two years, never once entertained the idea of trying to leave. After months of starvation, sleepless nights and brutal violence, Dengler finally begins to execute his plan, but he quickly learns that when the mind becomes corrupt, even friends can become enemies.
From a sheerly aesthetic perspective, Rescue Dawn is an incredible film. Pitting beautiful images of the jungle against the harsh conditions of the prison, Herzog accentuates the horrors of war compared to the serenity of nature. He then turns this image on its heels, making nature the enemy as Dengler desperately tries to make his way home through mudslides, waterfalls and leeches echoing Duane’s ominous warning, “the jungle is the prison.” Though superficially this is an action flick, Herzog works hard to add a more subtle layer of themes like “Man vs. Nature,” “Reality vs. Fiction,” “Man vs. Mind,” that will ensure provocative theses for any future film student.
However, from a mainstream audience’s perspective, Rescue Dawn is flawed. The major issue is that the entire film is shot through Dengler’s eyes (at times the camera even goes into his perspective) so that we have NO IDEA what happens to any characters not within a two-yard radius of Dengler. This becomes especially problematic after the escape from prison goes awry and the only person who can explain what went wrong is completely INSANE. This wouldn’t be so frustrating if I didn’t just endure an hour watching Dengler bond with his companions over rice and bug juice so that I actually became invested in all the characters. By the time you hit the overly rah-rah ending, even Dengler seems to have forgotten there was ever anyone else in the jungle (you don’t even get a mercy scroll at the end of the film filling you in on the missing details.) I am just going to go ahead and assume that everyone reunited and opened up a fusion-restaurant together, because I can, and that’s a bad sign for the movie.
Fortunately, if you have to be stuck watching one actor the entire film, you go do worse than with Christian Bale. Slimming down from his Batman Begins bulk to near manorexic Machinist level by the end of the film, Bale truly channels Dieter Dengler, body and soul. From grueling torture sequences, to stirring displays of friendship, to consuming large amounts of insects, Bale pours everything he has into each scene - it’s no wonder that Herzog wanted him on camera every five seconds, he’s simply fantastic.
The supporting cast looked even more horrifyingly emaciated than Bale, and did an equally good job with their roles. Though I spent most of the time just hoping Davies’ Gene would get killed, it’s a credit to the actor for reminding us why the sixties hippies get such a bad rep. Zahn’s character wasn’t as fleshed out as I might have liked, probably because he’s off his rocker most of the film, but the performance was still strong and certainly a step above his role in Saving Silverman.
Ultimately, Rescue Dawn comes at an interesting time in our present history, and those who like to wax poetic on modern parallels will have a field day. Those who just want to see some action, well, they’ll be pretty pleased as well, just as long as they keep their eyes on the prize, and in this case, that’s Christian Bale.