The true story of Dieter Dengler is so astounding that director Werner Herzog felt compelled to tell it twice: first, in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly and now in Rescue Dawn, a new movie starring Christian Bale as the German-born American pilot who escaped from a Laotian POW camp in 1965. The Vietnam War-era saga follows the soldier from his first mission, when he survives a plane crash only to be tortured and starved by Laotian soldiers before fleeing into the even more superhuman hardships of the jungle.
Best known lately for the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, German director Werner Herzog is — to put it mildly — a very extreme director inclined to extreme film-making. (For his 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo, he famously filmed a steam ship being hauled over a mountain without the use of special effects.) So it makes sense that Herzog would be drawn to Bale, who infamously lost more than 60 pounds for his role in The Machinist. As crazy as both of these guys may be, their collaboration results in a brilliantly affecting piece of art, so
Rescue Dawn is easily one of Herzog's most mainstream movies, and it's refreshing to see such attentive film-making applied to a very watchable Hollywood movie. Though good war movies are often equated with frank depictions of horror — as with Saving Private Ryan — Herzog's more impressive method makes very careful choices about what to show and what not to show. In the process, he gives us a very intimate tale that overhauls the typical tropes of a Vietnam movie.
Because the film is told from Dengler's point-of-view, the viewer knows only what Dengler knows, and as a result, the film can't rely on cheap exploits or irony. For instance, Dengler is astonished that some of his cellmates have been imprisoned for two years — way before Americans knew we had troops in the region — and since he has no idea why his three Southeast Asian cell mates are in the POW camp, neither do we. Like our protagonist, who is crafting an escape strategy from the moment he arrives, we are concerned only with the here and now.
Bale is rightfully being heralded for his portrayal of Dengler, whose commanding personality convinces the prisoners to flee even as his body is wasting away. (In fact, Bale gets disturbingly thinner in every scene, indicating that they were filmed in sequence.) But just as impressive are the supporting actors, including Jeremy Davies (who, my friend pointed out, will have to take a career hiatus just to gain the weight back) and Steve Zahn as Dengler's fellow POWs.
In their most subtle interactions, the actors — particularly Zahn and Bale — craft characters whose only motivation is survival. In return, Herzog uses chaotic camera work and stifling cinematography to reinforce their suffocation and determination. It's an expert telling of a story that deserved to be told again.