Dieter Dengler wanted to fly -- nothing more, nothing less. The dream first materialized when he was a young child living through World War II air raids on his small Bavarian village.
During one such raid, as Dieter hung his head out of his top-floor bedroom window obliviously watching the danger and destruction, an Allied bomber flew dangerously close to his home. As the plane whizzed by, young Dengler locked eyes with its pilot, a lad with aviator goggles coolly cocked upon his helmet.
It was in that brief millisecond of near contact that Dieter Dengler determined his future. Little Dieter needed to fly. He had no idea that his dreams would take him into a nightmare.
Director Werner Herzog is intimately familiar with Dengler. The German filmmaker chronicled Dengler's story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In it, Herzog details Dengler's life in Bavaria, his immigration alone to the United States and his eventual enlistment in the Navy, where he found his dream fulfilled as a fighter pilot. His dream also flew him straight into the Vietnam War, where he was shot down over Laos and taken prisoner by the Viet-Cong, who held him as a prisoner of war for six months before he and his fellow P.O.W.s staged a miraculous escape.
Known for subjecting his actors, subjects and even himself to extreme rigors in the name of cinema, Herzog took Dengler back to Laos to re-live those brutal days for the documentary.
Dengler's natural enthusiasm allows revelatory details to surface about the torture and inhumanity that he suffered, yet the occasional look of flashback terror in his eyes proves that this is no game.
For Rescue Dawn, Herzog returns to the jungle to re-enact Dengler's ordeal. It's a natural move for the director. Man's headstrong conflicts with both himself and the uncontrollable wilds of nature run through nearly all of the iconoclastic filmmaker's best narrative works.
Rescue Dawn falls in line with those films. Like the misguided hubris that drives the protagonists/antagonists in Herzog's past spectacles Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, Dengler, too, is the victim of lofty underestimations -- those of a naive country waging a misguided war with a people and terrain that proved mightier than expected.
From the early scenes of the pre-flight prep where Dengler (Christian Bale) and fellow airmen watch a humorous yet frighteningly authentic military training film erroneously detailing jungle survival tactics to the brutal torture methods used by the captors to the unexpected dangers that lurk inside the P.O.W. camp and around every corner of the brush, Herzog skillfully weaves a statement into his war film: This need not be. The underlying anti-war sentiments are subtle, but hard to ignore, particularly as Dengler endures tortures that ring dangerously close to those allegedly used in the current "war on terror."
Rescue Dawn is not a stiff, somber indictment of war, however. The film is full of humor -- an aspect that was appreciated by many Vietnam vets in attendance at a recent preview screening. They understood the existential healing powers of humor in warfare. Being able to maintain even a small semblance of humor in the face of unimaginable horrors feeds the survival instinct. Laughter means that you're still alive.
Dengler and fellow prisoners subconsciously adhere to that wisdom as they crack up in moments of scatological disaster and laugh while dreamily reminiscing about loved foods from their respective pasts. But Herzog keeps the humor fleeting. If anything, the brief respites of laughter further cement the tension.
As uncertainty lies around every corner, the tension is rife. It is laid on in white-knuckle fury in the film's centerpiece -- an escape sequence that recalls another war classic, The Great Escape -- and the subsequent descent into the "freedom" of the dark Laotian jungles. Herzog quickly reminds here that nature has no use for laughter, as Dengler and another P.O.W. are engulfed by the green hell of monsoon rains, mudslides, waterfalls, leeches and opaquely dense foliage.
For all of the technical and philosophical achievements, Rescue Dawn's great triumph lies with its casting. Bale proves himself again to be one of this generation's great character actors with his portrayal of Dengler. He brings a needed intensity to the role, but never sacrifices the oddly innocent, wide-eyed charm and steadfast determination that first enabled little Dieter to fly and eventually allowed the adult Dengler to live.
In a testament to powers of mind over matter, an emaciated Bale even ingests a bowl of live maggots during a scene, methodically inserting himself even further into believability.
The true standout is actor Steve Zahn. A steady, recognizable face primarily known for his comedic chops in multiple indie gems, Zahn blasts away all expectations with his portrayal of Duane, a P.O.W. beaten down by years in the camp who befriends Dengler and eventually joins him in the jungle escape.
With near dead eyes that slowly achieve life as the primal will to survive grows, Zahn captures with nuance and skill the vulnerability, fear and hopeful struggle expected of a soul in such a state. Grade: A