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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 28.85%
Average: 5.77%
Pretty Bad: 1.92%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 22 user ratings

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Rescue Dawn
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Little Dieter Flies Again"
5 stars

Over the course of his long, strange and illustrious career, visionary filmmaker Werner Herzog has constantly tried to provide viewers with stories they could never have imagined and sights that they have never seen. At a time when most films are blandly-conceived works put together by committees only concerned with giving viewers more of the same old thing, his films have been among the most startling and unforgettable cinematic works to emerge and his best (including such masterworks as “Aguirre, The Wrath of God,” “Stroszek” and “Fitzcarraldo”) are the kind of brilliant, unknowable works that will be discussed and analyzed for as long as people are interested in the cinema as an art form. With his latest work, “Rescue Dawn,” he has made the unexpected move of giving us the kind of story that we have indeed seen many times before–it is, in fact, a story that he himself has told in a previous film–but he has approached it in such a fascinating way that it feels as if we are watching it for the first time. The result is a film that works as a thrilling adventure as exciting and visceral as any put on the screen in recent memory and as an intimate character piece about an ordinary man whose extraordinary courage allows him to persevere against seemingly insurmountable odds.

That man is Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German man who grew up during World War II and who became obsessed at an early age with the fighter planes and pilots that he would routinely see flying over his village. At the age of 18, he made his way to America and joined the Navy as a pilot during the very early days of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. In the wake of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Dieter is sent off on his first mission but while flying over Laos, his squad is attacked and he crash-lands in the jungle. Using his survival skills, he evades detection for a little while but he is eventually captured by some locals and turned over to the Viet Cong. When he refuses to sign a “confession,” even after being dragged by a water buffalo and hung upside-down next to a wasp’s nest, Dieter is thrown into a prison camp and is surprised to find two Americans–Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies)–among his fellow captives. (“We’ve been here a lot longer than people know.”)

Almost immediately, Dieter begins to plot his escape, an action that his American colleagues try to convince him is futile–the slowly-cracking Gene is convinced that they will all be released before too long and doesn’t want to jeopardize that possibility while the more pragmatic Duane tries to explain that even if he makes it out of the camp, the surrounding area would be almost impossible to traverse to safety. (“The jungle is the prison.”) However, Dieter will not be deterred and over the next six months, he begins to slowly and meticulously plot out an escape plan for July 4–he squirrels away rice and even manages to fashion a crude lock-picker that allows him and his fellow captives out of their shackles for brief periods during the evening. Just before the plan can go off as scheduled, it becomes apparent that the guards are planning on simply executing all the prisoners and the escape is moved up. Inevitably, it doesn’t go smoothly and while Dieter and Duane do manage to escape, they are alone and while they manage to snag a couple of rifles (which they soon realize are fairly useless since they can’t use them without alerting their pursuers to their presence), they only have one shoe between them for protection against the rocky, rainy terrain that is between them and the slim possibility of rescue.

Dieter Dengler’s story of survival is one that has fascinated Herzog, no stranger to stories of man trying (and often failing) to come to terms with the unpredictability of nature, for years and a decade ago, he made a fascinating documentary about his life and times entitled “Little Dieter Needs To Fly.” When I first heard that Herzog was planning on making a dramatized version of that same story, it struck as a strange idea at best and an awful one at worst–why would he want to retell a story that he had already brought to the screen and even if he did, how could a dramatic recreation possibly hope to compare with listening to Dieter Dengler telling us his story directly? In answer to the former question, my best guess is that Herzog was in such admiration for Dengler and his accomplishment that he wanted to try in some small way to recreate that ordeal to see if he could do it as well. (Bear in mind, this is the same director who, in “Fitzcarraldo,” told the story of a man trying to haul a large boat up and over a mountain by really hauling a real boat up and over a real mountain.) As Dieter and Duane make their way through raging rivers and treacherous mountainsides, we instinctively understand that even though such scenes have presumably been blocked out as well as humanly possible to prevent injury to Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, it is impossible to direct a real river to do what you want and that inescapable fact creates the kind of dramatic tension that you just don’t get in an ordinary action film.

As for the latter question, he pulls it off magnificently precisely because he isn’t trying to overdramatize the material. Instead of creating elaborately choreographed sequences of his hero struggling against the elements, either inside the prison or out in the jungle, he and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger (who has worked with Herzog on numerous projects, including “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”) have shot the film in a loose, documentary-like style that adds immeasurably to the realism that they are trying to convey–it really feels at times as if there really were cameras grinding away during Dengler’s actual escape to freedom. Those looking for conventional action filmmaking may be initially put off by Herzog’s refusal to play by the genre rules (according to a “New Yorker” article about the troubled production of “Rescue Dawn” last year, even members of Herzog’s crew though he was crazy for his refusal to shoot the kind of coverage that an ordinary director would have required to put the finished film together) but as the story goes on and Herzog weaves his cinematic alchemy, I doubt that few will notice and fewer will care that he has cheerfully violated those rules.

In bringing Dengler’s story to the screen, Herzog has been aided immeasurably by his luck in casting a trio of actors who are as bold and fearless in front of the camera as he is behind him. As Dengler, Christian Bale is simply amazing in the way that he throws himself wholeheartedly into what could well be the most challenging role in a career that isn’t exactly teeming with fluff. Already famous for his willingness to tax himself physically in the service of his craft (he practically starved himself to get into character for “The Machinist” and he is currently sweating his ass off in the middle of a miserable Chicago summer in a rubber suit for the upcoming Batman movie), he takes to the strenuous material here–ranging from sliding down mountains to eating the maggots served up to him in prison in lieu of rice–with such ease and grace that you would think that he has been doing such things his entire life. In a way, though, that is the easy part–the tricky part is to convince us of Dengler’s bizarrely unwavering optimism, even in circumstances that would crumble the spirits of even the hardiest men. Bale does this in such a simple, yet scarily convincing way that he basically transforms before our eyes into Dieter Dengler. (There is also a beautiful bit of symmetry in the casting of Bale, seeing as how made his debut in Steven Spielberg’s vastly underrated “Empire of the Sun” playing another boy growing up in the shadow of World War II with planes on the brain.) As the two fellow prisoners who have responded to their captivity in vastly different ways, Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn are equally impressive–the former, with his wild hair and freaky manner, suggests a Charles Manson before his time and subtly signifies the insanity to come in Vietnam in the next few years while Zahn, perhaps best known for playing likable doofuses in such films as “Sahara,” “Saving Silverman” and “That Thing You Do,” gives the best and most heartbreaking performance of his career as the doomed Duane.

Some people have complained about “Rescue Dawn” because they feel that Herzog hasn’t given viewers a fully balanced picture of the Vietnam War and that he is demeaning the Vietnamese people by portraying them only as the brutal and sadistic captors of the American good guys. While I am sure that those complaining are completely sincere in their desire for such a nuanced portrayal, the simple matter of fact is that this is not the kind of film for such an approach. Face it, the perception of the Vietnamese that he received while in that prison camp was not a particularly multi-faceted one. Any attempt to paper over that aspect in an effort to make the material more politically correct might have been smart from a marketing point-of-view but disastrous to the story that Herzog is trying to tell. This is not a “Vietnam” story by any means. This is simply a tale of survival and the actual setting is almost irrelevant–it could have happened during any conflict between any two groups in the history of our planet and I suspect that Herzog would have approached it in the same manner.

The only real flaw in “Rescue Dawn” comes during the final scenes–after two hours of wrenching reality, the last few minutes are a strange blend of comedy and rah-rah patriotism that are completely at odds with the rest of the film. Technically, the scenes are well done and Bale gives them his all but they are so odd to behold that you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering why they are even there, especially since Herzog seems to have found the perfect final shot a few minutes earlier. Perhaps he is trying to give us a cinematic metaphor for the elation that Dengler must have felt at seeing his undying optimism finally pay off. Perhaps the producers of the film insisted on a conventional “up” ending and Herzog decided to give them one so over-the-top that it would slip into satire to point out how ridiculous the demand was in the first place. Perhaps, and this is the path I am going to choose, he decided to conclude his otherwise straightforward film with the kind of defiantly oddball conclusion that would get people talking as the light go up. (This is, after all, the guy who concluded “Stroszek” with the immortal lines “We’ve got a truck on fire, can’t find the switch to turn the ski lift off and can’t stop the dancing chicken. Send an electrician.”) Whatever his rationale, it is only a minor flaw and it hardly begins to take away from what is otherwise a great, great film.

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originally posted: 07/13/07 15:36:55
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2006 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2007 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

2/01/10 matt A strange film. Not Hollywoodized, but oddly self-serving. Well made and acted though 4 stars
6/21/09 mr.mike Ending makes it worthwhile. Don't get why Bale acts crazy the whole movie. 4 stars
1/15/09 Shaun Wallner Thought this was a good film. 5 stars
1/10/09 Anonymous. slow at times, but for the majority, it was good. 4 stars
10/27/08 Michael M An incredible story (to borrow the cliche) you have to see to believe. An emotional ride. 5 stars
1/31/08 Beck Steve Zahn at his finest 4 stars
1/28/08 Egg It kills me to use the word 'typical' when describing another POW film; but I did. 3 stars
11/24/07 action movie fan good start, but too much talk and too redundant to be truly exciting 3 stars
11/14/07 Double M Sadly, Bale disappoints for the 1st (& i hope last) time & was owned by Zahn. worth seeing. 4 stars
10/24/07 William Goss Harrowing tale of POW survival is exhausting in the best possible way. Zahn stands out. 4 stars
9/05/07 crowomon Herzog does great films 5 stars
8/16/07 Frank yep, wonderful by all, well done, splendid, breath giving, heart felt entertainment 5 stars
7/29/07 Elizabeth S Another fine performance from Christian Bale. 4 stars
7/26/07 LaRae Meadows Before I saw this I didn't know there could be an inspiring war movie! 5 stars
7/25/07 Ted Unforgettable! Oscar-level performances and superb cinmatography. 5 stars
7/24/07 Meschelle The last 15 minutes should have been 45 minutes ago. Lost it grounds. 2 stars
7/21/07 Ole Man Bourbon Well done 4 stars
7/16/07 pylgrym Great Art helps us live in better ways while engrossing and entertaining us. 5 stars
7/10/07 The Chode Great Film 5 stars
9/29/06 AdamAnt Herzog does all-American hero film shock. Flick's good enough, but not great. 3 stars
9/12/06 patrick johnson Awesome 5 stars
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  04-Jul-2007 (PG-13)
  DVD: 20-Nov-2007


  08-Nov-2007 (MA)

[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Werner Herzog

Written by
  Werner Herzog

  Christian Bale
  Steve Zahn
  Jeremy Davies
  Zach Grenier
  Marshall Bell
  Evan Jones

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