Rescue Dawn Review
By Joe Lozito
Whether it's the search for El Dorado (1972's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God"), dragging a ship over a mountain (1982's "Fitzcarraldo") or living with bears (2005's "Grizzly Man"), writer-director Werner Herzog is obsessed with characters who are…well, obsessed. "Rescue Dawn" - essentially a fictionalization of the documentary he made in 1997 ("Little Dieter Needs to Fly") about Dieter Dengler's escape from a Laos prison camp at the start of the Vietnam war - seems like fertile ground for the unpredictable director. But his painstakingly plain dramatization of Dengler's experience ultimately rings hollow.
After a Kubrickian opening which sets the bombing of jungle villages against classical music, Mr. Herzog plunges us straight into the action. We meet Dieter (Christian Bale) and the crew of the USS Ranger only briefly before the ill-fated pilot - on his first bombing run - crash-lands somewhere in Laos. He immediately goes into hiding only to be captured near a watering hole. When he refuses to sign a document denouncing his country (because "America gave me wings."), he endures numerous tortures (an ant's nest tied to his face, being dragged behind a cow) before finally being placed in a P.O.W. camp with four other men. Among them are chopper pilot Duane (Steve Zahn) and Eugene DeBruin from "Air America" (Jeremy Davies).
Mr. Zahn, known mostly for stoner sidekick roles ("Sahara"
) turns in some fine, unexpected work here as a man teetering delicately on the edge. Mr. Davies, meanwhile, outdoes Mr. Bale in the weight-loss department, showing up startlingly skeletal. The rest of his performance unfortunately is equally thin. The other men in the camp - their fellow detainees and the guards - are largely undeveloped.
Mr. Bale, on screen for almost every shot, must carry the film and he does so as much as possible. Once in the camp, the film grinds almost to a halt, perhaps attempting to echo the tedium of prisoner life. Slowly the plot moves forward, propelled by Dieter's belief in his ability to escape. He proves to be endlessly resourceful (using nails and spent shell casings as tools) and gives the men hope. With Mr. Bale in the role, this is all believable. The actor's eyes never loss their fire even on the brink of starvation, and his devilish grin keeps you wondering what he has in store next.
The Christian Bale-Werner Herzog pairing has a lot of potential, but there's little in "Rescue Dawn" to bring this combination to life. Still, since we see very little of Dieter outside Laos, we never get much of a feeling for him as a character, nor are we particularly moved by his tearful reunion with friends we've barely met. Mr. Herzog's "Little Dieter" doc - which is told via interviews by Mr. Dengler himself - may be required viewing in order to flesh out "Dawn".