A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 

Rank: # 21

RESCUE DAWN jjj
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2007, PG-13, 125 mins.

Dieter Dengler: Christian Bale / Duane: Steve Zahn / Gene: Jeremy Davies / Squad leader: Zach Grenier / Little Hitler: Teerawat "Ka Ge" Mulvilai

Written and directed by Werner Herzog

RESCUE DAWN is a film about manís obsessive battle with the elements around him.  At face value, it looks like it is another in a long line of POW films, but the film is a rather atypical Vietnam War entry in the sense that it deals with internal conflicts instead of large scale battles and bloodshed.  There are moments in the film that breathe with a certain familiarity, but RESCUE DAWN rises above some of its perfunctory and mundane elements by becoming a rich, absorbing, and creepily atmospheric war film.

The themes alone should come of no surprise if one considers the man behind the camera.  Werner Herzog himself has gained a reputation as a director with borderline primeval instincts and limitless passion.  He has made such powerful and evocative films like FITZCARRALDO, whose main character shared much of the same compulsions as Herzog himself (the film contained a now infamous feat where Herzog and company moved a 340 ton steamship over a mountain, without any discernable visual effects; a staggering achievement that reflected the filmís overall story arc).  Most of his films have focused on heroes of that have impossible dreams and aspirations and hope to attain them against insurmountable odds.  His characters have always had a sort of operatic gravitas in terms of their emotional substance (Herzogís films have often been characterized as Wagnerian in scope and presentation).  Again, this only helps to re-enforce the sensibilities of the director.

In RESCUE DAWN Herzog flirts with many elements that have permeated his other films, but here the emotional context is less grandiose and is brought down to a palpable level of realism.  That is not to say that Herzog enthusiasts will be disappointed with this effort (it has his quintessential knack for lush and beautiful cinematography, sparse use of music, daring performances, and a low-key and simplistically compelling shooting style), but RESCUE DAWN does a virtuoso job of telling a harrowing story of one manís predilection to surviving one hellish ordeal after another.  The film is not just ostensibly about heroism, but how one can been driven to an almost instinctual perseverance to overcome deadly obstacles.  In small ways, RESCUE DAWN is pure Herzog done with much more subtle brushstrokes.

Instead of focusing on battles and politics (which oftentimes are the only prevailing aspects of many war films), Herzog deals with one man, the real life Dieter Dengler, a German born American pilot that dreamed of fighting for his country.  He eventually joined the US Navy during the Vietnam War era and eventually was stationed on a carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin.  Once there he was assigned to a highly classified and secret bombing mission over Laos.  Unfortunately for him, he was shot down by the enemy and was captured and placed in a prisoner of war camp, where he faced all sorts of horrible physical and mental hardships.  The fact that Dieter was able to overcome is captors and escape is amazing in hindsight.  Only seven men - including Dengler - have managed to escape from a Viet Cong POW camp and survive.

Itís no wonder why this material appeased Herzog.  Itís also very easy to see how he managed to conceive not one, but two great films about Denglerís story.  RESCUE DAWN is not the first story of Dengler to have Herzogís fingerprints on it; he made the 1997 documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY, which dealt with - more or less - the story of the real life Dengler where Herzog took the POW survivor back to the location of his captivity.  Now, ten years later, RESCUE DAWN represents the filmmakerís desire to make a feature film out of the material, which Christian Bale playing the lead.  Like LITTLE DIETER, RESCUE DAWN has Herzog returning to the jungle to deal with Denglerís hellish and unimaginable story.  Whatís intrinsically fascinating is how breathtaking and engrossing the feature film is compared to the documentary.  It makes for a compelling study: two works done by the same director, but told in two decisively different manners.

Dieter (in another scene-stealing performance by the ever-versatile Christian Bale) is shown in the middle of his naval career in 1965.  The opening scenes have a free-flowing and loose spontaneity.  Dieter and his fellow pilots are briefed and instructed on their top-secret Laos bombing mission and even joke through a painfully flaccid and horribly performed Naval training newsreel that details how to survive being shot down in Viet Cong enemy territory.  Dieter and his buddies donít think too highly of the training film, nor of their upcoming mission.  To them, it seems like another day at the office.

But things go disastrously wrong for Dieter when his plane is abruptly shot down.  Incredibly, he does not go into instant panic mode.  He uses the dense jungle foliage to mask himself from his enemies and hopes that the Americans will quickly come in for a rescue.  However, some time passes and it grows increasingly clear to Dieter that he will not be picked up any time soon.  Things go from bad to worse when he is captured by the enemy and taken to their POW camp.

As is the case with most standard POW camp genre films, Dieter meets up with a colorful and eclectic group of other deranged detainees, all of whom appear to have been there for quite some time.  He meets up with Duane (in a career high performance by Steve Zhan), a sort of soft spoken and complacent prisoner, and Gene (in a undeniably creepy performance by Jeremy Davis), who is another prisoner that seems beyond depraved and unstable.  Their daily ordeal of living as prisoners is unspeakable cruel.  They are fed little, if anything, and are tormented routinely.  One moment  that is especially haunting and disturbing shows Dieter being tied up and hung upside down with an waspís nest wrapped around his head.  Sleeping every night is seemingly impossible.  All of the prisoners are shackled by their hands and feet and are placed in opposite directions of one another while sleeping on the bare ground.  This way, if someone passes gas or defecates in their pants, the person beside them has to smell it all night.  That alone would drive any man to insanity.

The prisoners' lives are a constant uphill battle of unbearable, humidity-laced heat, insect bites, dysentery, starvation, and sleep depravation.  Most of the men have very little hope, if any, of being let go or found.  Escape seems like a fantasy.  Dieter, however, refuses to by a submissive prisoner that will accept his plight.  He will escape, with or without the help of his POW posse.  After all, their cages are made of bamboo, which seem harmless enough, and he is able to quickly devise a way to escape his shackles on a nightly basis.  His initial plan is to escape from the camp at night and essentially run for it.  His naivetť with his situation allows for the pragmatist in Duane to knock some sense into him. "Donít you get it, " he pleads with him at one point, "Itís the jungle thatís the real prison."

Realizing that simply darting out for the jungle would be a moronic plan (no one would last more than a day or two there without food or water), Dieter decides to take his time and launch a more well-laid out and thoughtful plan.  Seeing that that the rainy season would be his best opportunity to escape (the rain would be cooler - to a smaller degree - not to mention that it would be harder for the enemy to search for foot prints), Dieter and his clan start to stockpile on food and begin to monitor the comingís and goingís on their captors.

One day, when opportunity strikes, they escape their chains, secure weapons, and daringly escape the camp.  After Dieter and his fellow POWs make it out, they decide to split up and Duane is left with Dieter.  It is here where the filmís real emotional center rests.  They have escaped their first prison, but soon grow to realize that the jungle around them becomes a second unwanted prison.  Survival outside becomes ever more difficult.  They not only are scared of being re-captured, but food and water is scarce and the threat on jungle predators looms over their shoulders constantly.  Even worse, their grasp of reality slips with every hour.  Both start to hallucinate and hear voices.  Perhaps even more disparaging is their frequent failure to lure in passing American helicopters to come and pick them up.  At one point one plane nearly kills the two with machine gun fire, mistaking them for the enemy.

What makes RESCUE DAWN such a intensely realized war drama is that it never once glosses over and trivializes its characters, nor their dreaded predicaments.  Herzog also very astutely never makes his "heroes" figures that deserve instant worship.  This is a warts 'n all presentation of heroism.  There could have been a tremendous temptation to make Dieter an invincible an infallible superman, but RESCUE DAWN shows him for what he really was: an everyman solider thrown into unthinkable circumstances that has to battle and elements - internal and external - that he has to face in order to survive.  Dieter is by no means perfect (heís often impetuous, gullible, and hot-tempered), but as the film progresses so does his character.  He inevitably grows hardened by his experiences, and this affords him opportunities to help launch his escape plan.  Like the classic Herzogian, archetypal figure, heís a protagonist with both a slippery grasp of reality whose increasing mental instability fuels his internal rage and compulsions. 

Perhaps better than just about any Vietnam War film Iíve seen, RESCUE DAWN makes the environment around Dieter and company a character in itself.  Never before in a film have the jungles been so simultaneously beautiful and lush alongside being dangerous and foreboding as they are here.  Herzog films the lushness of the landscapes with the painterly eye of a travelogue video from hell.  Filled mostly in Thailand, he gives RESCUE DAWN such a unmistakable sense of realism and haunting, eeriness. 

As Dieter and Duane lurch forward through all of the weeds, leaves, intersecting tree branches and foliage, you can feel their exhaustion and suffering.  Herzog is an undisputed master of simple, suggestive camera work and cinematography.  He does not engage in wild and frantic editing, nor does let his style overwhelm the flow of the film.  His minimalist approach only heightens the intensity of the men's struggle for survival.  Unlike other 'Nam films, RESCUE DAWN has very little combat and fighting in it.  Itís a refreshingly introverted war film.  The violence is all emotional and from within; Itís less about the politics of war and more about universal themes of battling despair and misery.

The actors are absolutely crucial to the filmís overall effectiveness, and RESCUE DAWN has a three of the best performances of the year in itís three main stars.  First, there is the great Christian Bale, who continues to amaze and astound me with his boundless versatility and range.  His supreme dedication to his craft is unwavering here (his see-saw physical transformations are almost inconceivable; he went from losing a staggering amount of weight to play the main role in THE MACHINIST to gaining it all back to play the Caped Crusader in BATMAN BEGINS and now goes back to looking withered and skeletal in RESCUE DAWN).  Beyond the obvious physicality of the role, Bale makes Dieter a tortured and ambitious figure of hope.  If he does not secure an Oscar nomination here - which has seemingly eluded him for years - then it will be decided letdown.

Steve Zhan, an underrated actor, is equally staggering as the long-suffering Duane, whose dementia and lack of hope are, at times, heart-breaking.  And then there is the  frequently impressive Jeremy Davis, who churns out one little supporting performance after another of silent and chilling antagonism.  His performance in the film is a tightly woven bit of bottled up hostility and anger.  You gain the impression that he would go berserk and explode on someone if being a POW had not exhausted his physical ability to do so.

If there were one area where RESCUE DAWN falters a bit then it would be with its brief epilogue, which details Dieterís post-rescue life just after he is hoisted away by a US army helicopter.  The concluding moments are not as tactile as they are a bit forcefully sentimental.  Fortunately, they do not undermine the rest of the film that preceded it, and RESCUE DAWN confidently emerges as a gripping and provocative exploration into internal struggle and despair.  During a time when we are dealt up endless war films bathed in blood and carnage, it's refreshing to see a genre film like this that places more stock in psychological battles.  Oftentimes, it is the obsessive drives of men that make war films resonate more powerfully and Herzog knows this impeccably.  The fact that RESCUE DAWN is his second crack at the same material only further reveals his dedication, assuredness, and - yes - his own inner obsessions as a filmmaker.  The film may not be on par with his best work, but it still stands highly as a unique and harrowing portrait of overcoming the deepest, darkest pits of captivity.

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