|Rescue Dawn (2007)
Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
Director: Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog is a man known more for his gripping documentaries than his narrative films, so it’s not at all surprising to discover that “Rescue Dawn” a) opens with archive footage of the Vietnam War, and b) tells the true story of German-American naval pilot Dieter Dengler. Granted, Herzog’s previous experience with Dengler – who was the subject of his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” – makes him the perfect man for the job, and though the movie feels cliché in parts, and a little too reminiscent of “Apocalypse Now” in others, it stands as one of the best prison escape stories to ever get the Hollywood treatment. “The Great Escape” may be more well known, and “The Great Raid” a much grander feat, but “Rescue Dawn” has to be seen to be believed.
Christian Bale stars as the German-born Dengler, an immigrant-turned-American citizen who up and joins the U.S Navy for the chance to fly, a passion that was first ignited when he witnessed an American pilot dropping bombs in his hometown during World War II. With the U.S. on the cusp of going to war with the North Vietnamese, Denglar is assigned to a top-secret mission bombing enemy territories in Laos (the country bordering Vietnam), but when his plane crash lands in the jungle, Dengler is captured by the Vietnamese army and taken to a Pathet Lao prison camp. It’s there that he meets Lt. Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), a fellow U.S. POW who joins Dengler in his escape.
The only Viet Cong prisoner in the history of the war to make it out alive, Dengler’s story is certainly one worth telling, but it’s impossible to do so without coming off as “just another Vietnam movie.” Herzog does his best to remedy this by making the story more about survival than the war itself, but he runs into some problems along the way; namely in the over-the-top performance of Dengler’s sole critic (Jeremy Davies), another U.S. POW whose squirrelly behavior is more reminiscent of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist character from “Apocalypse Now” than a real human being. In fact, the film even shares its main theme (man vs. nature) with Coppola’s masterpiece, and though Martin Sheen never ate a bowl of live maggots for his art, you can be sure Brando would have if necessary.
This only makes Bale’s performance all that more mesmerizing. While he may always be remembered for donning the cape and cowl in Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the “Batman” franchise, the method actor has proven time and again why he’s one of Hollywood's greatest talents. The calm, almost maniacal portrayal of Dengler seems ironic at first (why would he be smiling at a bunch of guys pointing rifles in his face?), but as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Bale’s not playing him as crazy, but confident. Herzog, on the other hand, was definitely flirting with insanity when he cast Steve Zahn in such a serious role, but the comic actor quickly proves that he can do more than play the silly sidekick.
The film isn’t completely saved by either performance, however, and is plagued by serious pacing issues. The first hour of the film is overloaded with so much information (his debriefing, his crash, his escape, and his torture) that the scenes aren’t tied together cohesively, but instead like snippets out of a diary. This problem reappears towards the end of the film as well (when Dengler revisits the jungle in the his second escape attempt), and it’s almost as if Herzog was forced to make massive cuts in order to get the film down to a certain runtime. It’s a rare to find a movie that would actually benefit from a longer cut, but in the case of “Rescue Dawn,” it deserves all the time in the world.
The single-disc release of “Rescue Dawn” isn’t spectacular by any degree, but it has more than enough for diehard fans to chew on, including an audio commentary with writer/director Werner Herzog (and moderated by Normal Hill), three deleted scenes, and a 45-minute making-of featurette that covers everything from casting to production.