reviewed by Andrew James
Adapted from a previous Herzog documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn is the feature film version of Dieter Dengler; a young military pilot, who on his first mission in the Vietnam conflict gets shot down over Laos and is taken prisoner by the enemy. While in the POW camp, Dieter and five other prisoners find friendship, comraderie and strength enough to try a daring escape and make their way back through the treacherous jungle to safe soil.
Not surprisingly, Bale is tremendous in the role of Dieter and debatably the stand-out of every aspect within the entire film. He goes above and beyond the call of duty for an actor by doing his own stunts, torture scenes and the amount of physical work he must've gone through to make himself appear as though he's been in a real POW camp for months. Anyone who's seen his truly dangerous performance in The Machinist will have an idea of what I'm talking about. Besides his physical work and attributes, he's also playing a role unlike any other he's done. He's a military rookie placed in an almost impossible situation, yet he's too naieve to know it and because of this, he's brash, courageous and even humorous about the situation he's in. It may not be his best role of his career, but it's got to be near the top; which foir Bale is saying a lot as he must be one of the more versatile actors working in Hollywood today.
Another prisoner of the camp, Eugene, is played by Jeremy Davies. It took me a minute to place him as he has long hair and a long beard (looking frighteningly a bit like Charles Manson). Once the annoyance of "who is that kid?" after I placed him, his quirky portrayal of a delusional yet optimistic POW was a fun distraction to the mellow restraint from the other prisoners. He seems to always play this quirky, nervous type of role all the time but it suits him very well and when I stated earlier that Bale is arguably the stand-out of the film. I said arguably because I believe Davies to also arguably be the stand out.
Besides Zahn's humorous injections, the whole movie seems to be light-hearted in a way that's difficult to put my finger on. There were many scenes that brought a smile and even a chuckle at times to my face. It seems odd that in such a terrible, dreary place there would be much room for humor, but this is partly what makes Herzog a great director. He puts the humor where it seems like it should not be and makes it work amazingly well. And though you wouldn't think it would be there, it actually makes the entire situation totally believable and realistic.
Another aspect of the film that makes it seem a little more realistic is its less than brutal circumstances within the camp. Sure, they're hungry and the guards are mean and they're shackled at night and all that stuff. But compared to other Vietnam POW movies, these guys seem to have it pretty good. Aside from one scene, they're not tortured constantly (that we see anyway) and they're basically given free reign to walk around the camp and do as they please so long as it is not night time (when they are shackled) and so long as they aren't causing trouble. If this were Chuck Norris in Missing in Action or a Rambo flick, the guys would be enduring shock treatments, forced to live in a vat of sludge or hung upside down for hours on end. Here, none of these atocities seem to happen.
What makes the film enjoyable for a global audience is the sheer amount of intensity. Every single part of the movie will have a viewer on the edge of their seat. From moment one with the plane crash, to the capture, to the scenes of quiet planning, to the brushes with death throughout the escape attempt and jungle scenes, it is completely thrilling. For every moment of intensity, there is also moments of overwhelming relief. I can't recall ever feeling so relieved in a film, so many times, as I did during my viewing of Rescue Dawn.
The film itself looks gorgeous. Though it's dirty, dreary and wet within the [totally realistic] camp, the rest of the film is lush with jungle foilage, ominous shots of fog drenched mountainscapes and beautiful river and countryside wide shots. Nothing bad to say about the cinematography from my angle.
Comparatively speaking, Rescue Dawn might be the best film I've seen all year. Besides the points made above, a lot of it has to do with the fact that it magically pulls off a military, war movie in the midst of a POW camp with a PG-13 rating. You would think there would be pints of blood squirting everywhere and sailor talk to beat the band. But it's just not needed and thankfully not thrown in there by the film maker just to get the "R" rating. On top of all this, it has got a perfect running time. Two hours is exactly the amount of time needed to tell the story. It doesn't drag on needlessly or cut itself short.
This is quite possibly a perfect film and one Herzog can (and should) be proud of. I honestly can't think of anything negative to say about the film. Though it's not my favorite film of the year, it is arguably the best. Congratulations on doing nearly the impossible Mr. Herzog in attaining a five star rating from MoviePatron.com.
IMDb profile - full cast and crew
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Rescue Dawn