Rescue Dawn

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 07/26/07 22:53:48

"Herzog and his cast suffer excruciating hardships so you don't have to."
5 stars (Awesome)

‘Rescue Dawn’ is a wartime adventure that has less hardware, pyrotechnics and gore than most of its peers. That doesn’t stop German writer-director Werner Herzog (‘Grizzly Man’) from delivering a tense, harrowing and ultimately exhilarating movie that earns every jolt it elicits. In his own off-handed way, Herzog proves that realism can be more thrilling than most cinematic gimmicks.

Herzog is actually retracing the story he told ten years ago with the documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Miraculously, the new film doesn’t feel like a warmed-over take on the previous tale.

In 1966, Lt. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale, “Batman Begins”), a German-born American navy pilot was shot down over Laos during an attack on Viet Cong supply lines and was taken to a prison camp. In the camp, he and his fellow prisoners endured severe malnutrition and interrogation techniques that certainly defied Geneva conventions.

Like most of the protagonists in Herzog’s movies, Dengler, as presented in the film, has an eerie, almost illogical confidence in his ability to conquer seemingly insurmountable situations. While his fellow captives Duane (Steve Zahn) and Eugene (Jeremy Davies) think that the Laotian jungles will kill anyone who gets past the sadistic guards in the POW camp, Dengler believes he can return to his ship.

Dengler’s certainty of his escape borders on madness, but it’s what keeps him alive during his ordeal. In fact, Dengler became a pilot because he was mesmerized by watching Allied planes attacking his home during World War II. By focusing on Dengler’s borderline insanity, “Rescue Dawn” quickly becomes more than a Rambo-esque shoot-em-up.

Bale’s cocky grin in the face of the bleak camp makes viewers wonder if he knows something his captors don’t or if he should be in a rubber room. Bale and his fellow cast members both lost considerable weight to play the POWs. But in addition to looking convincingly emaciated, they also have a solid chemistry that makes viewers care deeply if they find their freedom. “Rescue Dawn” is one of those rare films where ‘esprit de corps’ feels like more than a cliché.

If you’ve only known Steve Zahn from comedies like “Saving Silverman,” you’ll be shocked how well he handles heavier material. His Duane is a more practically-minded than Dengler and proves a powerful counterweight to the latter’s dreaming.

Herzog’s handling of the scenario is almost ideal. He can elicit viewer sympathy for Dengler and his compatriots without ever stooping to gaudy theatrics. He doesn’t dwell on the torture, but he knows how to make viewers sense the horror without going overboard.

When the guards attack, Herzog emphasizes the casual nature of their atrocities instead of the gore. Viscerally, it’s a wise move because several viewers in my section jumped out of their chairs even though the action was obscured in the frame.

In his previous movies like “Augirre: The Wrath of God,” Herzog made the jungle more of a character than a backdrop. In “Rescue Dawn,” the luscious scenery seems to taunt Dengler’s group and makes their quest seem like a trip through Dante’s world instead of a place in this one.

While much of “Rescue Dawn” is fictionalized, Herzog’s presentation thrives on a “did they really do that?” verisimilitude. On second thought, go see the film because it proves that thinking people can have fun at the movies, too.

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