"Three stars (PG-13)
Rescue Dawn is Werner Herzog’s dramatization of his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which told the story of Dieter Dengler (is that a great name or what?), who watched the WWII Allied planes destroying his German village as a boy and decided then and there that he wanted to be a pilot. At age 18, Dengler moved to America, joined the Navy, learned to fly and got shipped off to Vietnam, where he was shot down over Laos during one of his first missions.
What you need to know about Dengler is that he was fiercely determined, with a gleam in his eye indicating that he was most likely a crazy son of a bitch. Christian Bale (Batman Begins, American Psycho) gets that across in his powerful characterization, though another part of his portrayal is puzzling. Riddle me this: Why does Bale, a British native, play Dengler using a generic American accent instead of the pilot’s German accent, which remained prominent through his dying day in 2001? The decision seems especially odd given that a key scene late in the film involves a group of fellow U.S. soldiers questioning Dengler’s nationality. If we had heard Dengler’s German accent, the incident would have been more coherent.
What you also need to know is that, even though Rescue Dawn is a fictionalized account of Dengler’s capture and escape from a POW camp, it doesn’t follow summer blockbuster conventions. The camera periodically drifts every which way, reinforcing the otherworldliness of the experience. And there is a distinct lack of Rambo-esque behavior from Dengler. Yes, he becomes the leader of the prisoners and heads up the escape, but his exploits have a sense of verisimilitude that most films of this genre lack.
Several of the Laotian guards are noted as individuals by the prisoners, but the focus remains firmly on the captives. Bale is very good, despite the accent business. Steve Zahn, known primarily for playing lovable goofballs, does fine dramatic work here. Some of the most touching segments in the film involve his character Duane and Dengler, who develop a big brother/little brother relationship during their trek through the jungle.
Jeremy Davies, best known locally as the star of the Indianapolis-based Going All the Way, does his usual shtick — twitching and mumbling all over the place. Granted, the behavior fits the personality of Gene, who remains steadfast in his belief that escape is a mistake since the group will be rescued any day, but I’m tired of watching Davies do minor variations on the same character in one movie after the next.
Bale, Zahn and Davies lose an alarming amount of weight for the film, by the way. Their determination to make physical the deprivations of the prisoners is striking, but I found my thoughts drifting more to the health of the actors than to the plight of their characters. Bale also lost a great amount of weight for The Mechanic, becoming even more skeletal than any of the actors here. Endangering your long-term health for a movie role is ill-advised. Doing it twice is just plain stupid.
Bottom line: Rescue Dawn effectively conveys a sense of the hell the prisoners went through, including the tedium of captivity. If you appreciate this non-traditional POW/prison escape film, rent Little Dieter Needs to Fly and check out the real story. And the real accent.