You know a movie is good when it manages to keep you in suspense, even when you know how itís going to end. Werner Herzog manages this feat in Rescue Dawn. It tells the story of Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who escaped from a POW camp in Laos and actually made it all the way home. Herzog has visited this subject before in a 1997 documentary called Little Dieter Must Fly. There he told the story of Denglerís escape and incredible survival as fact. Here he explores it as drama. The result is a gripping and triumphant tale of survival against seemingly impossible odds.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was a German immigrant who joined the US Navy and became an aviator. Although the real Dengler had a lifelong German accent, Baleís performance has him speaking unaccented English. This actually works in the movieís favor - an unconvincing or even obvious accent might work against the suspension of disbelief. Bale plays Dengler as an American. Naturalized, perhaps, but American nonetheless, with attributes that Americans value, including optimism, tenacity, ingenuity, and pride in country. Rescue Dawn is one of the most favorable depictions of American fighting men seen in the movies in quite a while. That it was made by a European director in these times seems remarkable.
Rescue Dawn gets going quickly, with Dengler shot down on his first mission over Laos, captured, and thrown into a remote jungle camp with a few Laotian prisoners and two other Americans. Duane (Steve Zahn) is an Air Force pilot who has already been held for two years. Gene (Jeremy Davies) is a CIA pilot who believes that all three men will be released soon if they refrain from provoking their captors by trying to escape. Duane has apparently lost all hope, and Geneís belief in their imminent release is clearly delusional. It falls to Dengler to restore his fellow prisonerís flagging spirits and search for a way out of the camp before they all die from starvation or are simply murdered by the guards.
Herzog has an eye for detail that keeps the viewer fascinated. He practically turns the jungle into a character in its own right. The locations and cinematography in Rescue Dawn are gorgeous, and Herzog uses his skill at composing scenes to emphasize that the jungle, even more than the guards, is the most serious obstacle to an escape. Most of the dialog in the camp is in a hushed tone, as the prisoners try to plan their escape, or simply keep each others spirits up, without arousing the suspicions of the guards. This has the effect of drawing the viewer more closely into the furtive, fearful world of the POWs, and emphasizes that the threat of discovery or violence from the guards was constant.
Baleís, performance as Dengler is intense and commanding. When heís on the screen (which is nearly all the time) you canít take your eyes off him. One hopes that he will at least be remembered at Oscar time. Itís not uncommon these days for actors to go to the gym and work themselves into shape for a role. The actors in Rescue Dawn seem to have starved themselves. Jeremy Davies, in particular, looks nearly skeletal. He lost forty pounds to play the role of Gene, and barely weighed a hundred pounds during filming. He looks like heís been in a prison camp for real. Steve Zahn gives an affecting performance as a prisoner near the end of his rope, physically and mentally. He has already endured two years of captivity, and knows that he faces many more years to come. Like Dengler and Gene, his mission was classified, so no help is coming, and as far as the people back home are concerned the war hasnít even started yet. Zahn and Davies together present a shocking appearance that underscores the importance of Denglerís iron will to live. In Rescue Dawn, the fight for survival is first and foremost a fight against despair.
Rescue Dawn was actually released in 2006, but itís been a limited release, so actually finding it in a theater may not be easy. But make the effort. Phony cinematic heroics are cheap and plentiful. Movies like Rescue Dawn, an authentic and moving portrayal of one manís heroic fight to survive in some of the worst conditions imaginable, are pretty rare.