Survival against impossible odds is one of cinema’s favourite subjects and while the genre has been plundered to the point of cliché by Hollywood, history is always keen to serve up another ordeal of suffering and escape that this particular well is unlikely to run dry very soon. Certainly the true tribulations of those involved has often been diminished by big screen treatments and this is exactly what Werner Herzog set out to disprove in his retelling of the experiences of pilot Dieter Dengler. Shot down over Laos during the infamous “secret” U.S. bombing campaigns of 1966 Dengler (portrayed by Christian Bale), was taken to a prisoner-of-war camp by Vietcong forces to await his release. With nothing but time on their hands, he and the other prisoners plot a daring take-over to quicken their chances at freedom.
Most of the others, including Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) and Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) have been in captivity for several years, at a physical and emotional end and thus the plan is fraught with danger at every turn and becomes very psychologically taxing on all of them. Waiting for the rainy season, Dengler manages to file a nail in order to open their handcuffs but Herzog quite correctly focuses not on these intrigues but on the prisoners’ quite extraordinary personal stories. Most of them grow close through their combined task and goal but even this relationship is brittle as battles ensue between DeBruin who believes they will be released (and increasingly needs to hold on to this belief) and Dengler who makes the escape plan his life. It’s a fascinating portrayal that rests primarily with Christian Bale – his performance is intense and gripping to watch. He is never made a complicated or even particularly intelligent man but his will to endure is very powerful indeed. The POW-camp setting of course provided another opportunity for the actor to stretch the thin end of his yo-yo diet method acting “The Machinist” style but he seems to have restrained himself this time, quite unlike Davies who is terrifyingly meagre and bony.
Werner Herzog remains curiously anonymous throughout as both the storytelling and camerawork are played straight as it were. The style does not draw you in as in “Fitzcarraldo” or “Aguire” but it’s old-school, no frills filmmaking that simply observes. It’s tempting to call this style-less yet the film is never trite. The opening shot of a countryside going up in napalm flame is especially lingering. In the second half, the film does slow and the harshness of the Laotian jungle can never match the power of Herzog’s other jungle epos or indeed that of “The Killing Fields” to which it bears significant resemblance. While this isn’t the Khmer Rouge, the poverty of Laos seems similarly backward and hopeless, even before the war’s full expansion and Dengler’s tale in many respects mirrors that of Dith Pran. Another quibble must lie in the denouement which exudes a cheesiness that has been so keenly avoided up to that point. In sum however, it is great to see Herzog return to feature films after an extended spell making documentaries (then of course it could be argued that as a true story, this is a documentary as well) after mixed reaction to 2001’s “Invincible.” And certainly, as a powerful story of against-the-odds survival his is not amiss.
Klaus Badelt’s score to “Rescue Dawn” is suitably restrained, utilising a minimal string ensemble. The music swings between a beautiful noble or perhaps patriotic theme that also manages to embody pity and a schizophrenic cello solo playing to the wilder psychological aspects of the story. The former is relegated mainly to the opening and closing title but is a haunting theme that deserved repeated visits. The score makes for a strong album presentation that represent’s Badelt’s best effort of 2006 (though nowhere near his masterpiece “The Promise” of the year before) despite being much smaller in scale than that for Wolfgang Petersen’s “Poseidon.” Those wishing to hear the composer write for serious drama rather than his more regular action assignments will find much to like and while minimal, the music is respectful and dignified and perfectly fit for purpose.
“Rescue Dawn” is worth a look simply for another powerhouse performance from Christian Bale that suits him infinitely better than the Bruce Wayne persona. Similarly, it marks a welcome return to form for Werner Herzog who continues to be one of Germany’s best exports.
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