Rescue Dawn (Herzog, 2007)

In Rescue Dawn, the fascinating new film from director Werner Herzog, Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German born U.S. fighter pilot who’s shot down over Laos during his first mission to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The year is 1965, and the American’s on board Dengler’s aircraft carrier, including himself, regard the conflict as minor, and from a distance afforded by their occupation. Herzog paints these initial moments with a calm, anti-climactic build which sets both the characters and viewer up for the more shocking, heroic, material to come. Almost immediately after being downed, Dengler is captured by a group of Laotian/North Vietnamese soldiers. Herzog’s staggering montage of Dengler’s trek to a far off P.O.W. camp introduces both the ferocity of his captors and the epic scope of the surrounding jungle environment. Once Dengler reaches the camp, he’s surprised to see other American and coalition forces being held, and at the length they’ve been held. See, the American involvement in Vietnam covered far before the mid 1960’s, and Dengler’s ignorance to this fact represents the military’s as a whole, bookened by the harsh C.I.A. presence at the end of the film. Rescue Dawn is essentially a series of discoveries for Dengler, and his fellow prisoners, which include Steve Zahn’s haunted Dwayne and Jeremy Davies’ pacifist/psycho Gene. As they realize their guards are starving as well and wish to kill the prisoners in order to return to their villages, the need for an escape becomes mortally pressing. During these tense moments, Herzog uses a series of long camera takes, creating some brilliant blocking to compliment this style, all encapsulating the compressed, almost real time evolution of the camp social dynamic. Which inevitably leads to the open, vast sequences of escape, equally haunting Dengler’s almost innate, instinctual need to survive. Bale’s stunning performance, which ranges from sublime to heart-wrenching, twitches with the intensity of a man driven by his purposeful blocking of the future. Peace talks, helicopters, gunfire, none of it matters to Dieter, and his cunning, singular motivation and improvisation is the only reason he ends up surviving (don’t worry the title gives that away already). As with all Herzog, the end result doesn’t stand a chance against the process, which Rescue Dawn, like many of his other great works, revels in the torture, survival, and triumph of a lost soul. Christian Bale is well on his way to being his generation’s Robert DeNiro, a shape shifting force of nature whose trauma’s end up defining his character, consistently producing a fascinating specimen of rage and goodness moviegoers can contemplate for years to come.

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