Rescue Dawn

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/31/07 22:03:33

"Little Dieter soars."
5 stars (Awesome)

Werner Herzog has covered this material before, in his documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly", but let's face it, people don't really watch documentaries. It's easy to see why telling the story that way would not be enough for Herzog; Dieter Dengler's story is the sort of thing that has always fascinated him - and which he's very good at putting on film.

It's man versus jungle, and this time, the jungle is Laos and the men are prisoners of war. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is the latest, captured after his plane is shot down during a bombing run. He is brought to a secluded camp, where he is thrown in a cell with Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul), Procet (Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat), Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). They've been there for months and years, but Dieter has no intention of staying that long and having his mind go as seems to be happening to them. He's getting out, even though Duane points out that the jungle itself is as potentially lethal an obstacle as any guard tower would be.

What makes Dieter able to plot and survive an escape when few if any other POWs could? As Christian Bale depicts him, Dieter has both the ingenuity and some of the na´vetÚ of a precocious child, quickly seeing how things might fit together in ways that a more rigid mind might not while at times remaining blithely ignorant of just how hostile everything around him is: There's a definite element of Dieter being too stupid/inexperienced to be scared, at least compared to the other prisoners, along with occasional fits of petulance. Of course, he'll gain that experience over the course of the story, but Bale's performance is so good that I don't recall a specific spot where desperation started to challenge Dieter's confidence. The way he carries himself also shows the physical toll imprisonment takes - I don't think he dropped quite as much weight as he did for The Machinist or Tom Hanks did for Cast Away, but it sometimes seems like he did.

Bale's performance is great, but it's sometimes overshadowed by the flashier performances turned in by Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn. Their characters have been in the camp for a while, and as Dieter arrives both are broken to a certain extent. Davies is especially unnerving as Gene; senior both in terms of time in the camp and rank on the outside, he clings desperately to that authority even though he's the most clearly delusional of the group. Davies does a great job of showing the way Gene resents Dieter, even as he grudgingly starts to go along with the healthy and confident younger man. Zahn's Duane, on the other hand, is almost completely shut down when we meet him, and while he doesn't ever really get well, mentally, Zahn shows us how the guy is buoyed by having someone like Dieter around.

As mentioned earlier, this is the sort of film Herzog is particularly famous for (or infamous, in some circles) - a man losing his mind when confronted by the jungle, which is simultaneously hostile and indifferent. The jungles of southeast Asia are nearly exactly on the other side of the planet from those of South America, where Herzong and Klaus Kinski portrayed similar material in Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo (and experienced it themselves, as My Best Fiend and Burden of Dreams will testify), but the basic sense is the same: It's beautiful but overwhelming - it hides snakes and maggots and swallows villages whole. Nobody captures that quite like Herzog. In that way, it's not unlike the bombing missions that Dieter flies; documentary footage opens the movie, and as terrible as the fact of it is, the explosions are mesmerizing from a distance.

Herzog is far from a one-trick pony, though - his screenplay and direction are elegant things, a model of "show, don't tell". He doesn't just introduce the other prisoners and guards, but makes sure that they've got their own personalities and lets us see the dynamics between them. And though it would be easy to get caught up in imagery and symbolism, the plot is never far off: Herzog's landscapes are not just beautiful, but give the audience the lay of the land, and he makes sure that we have all the nifty little details necessary to follow along: It's not enough just to say Dieter knows how to undo handcuffs; he talks about how he manages it, and what it says about his life.

It's clear that this is a story Herzog is passionate about - "Rescue Dawn" was conceived before "Little Dieter", so he's been trying to get it made for over a decade. You have to love your subject for that, and this is one of those wonderful cases where that love comes through and gives the audience a reason to share it.

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