Christian Bale as Dieter
Marshall Bell as Admiral
François Chau as Province Governor
Jeremy Davies as Gene
Craig Gellis as Corporal
GQ as Farkas
Zach Grenier as Squad Leader
Pat Healy as Norman
Toby Huss as Spook
Bonnie Z. Hutchinson as Nurse
Evan Jones as Lessard
Abhijati ‘Meuk’ Jusakul as Phisit
Mr. Tony B. King as Jet Pilot
Mr. Richard Manning as Helicopter Pilot
Mr. Garrett D. Melich as Rigger
Directed by Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog’s welcome return to drama is a visually-stimulating real world take on “The Great Escape” that only suffers from a slower second act and a bit of silliness.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was on his first mission flying into North Vietnam for reconnaissance when his plane was shot down over Laos, and he was imprisoned in a POW camp under brutal conditions for months before finally escaping.
Director Werner Herzog has made dozens of documentaries about various topics in the past few years–2005’s “Grizzly Man” being a standout that received the most attention. An earlier documentary, 1999’s “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” told the true story of an eccentric pilot who was shot down and imprisoned in a POW camp, and it makes some sense that Herzog would choose to adapt Dieter’s story into his first dramatic feature in five years.
The movie begins with Dieter Dengler’s mission into North Vietnam before the Vietnam War had officially begun, but he’s quickly shot down forcing him to survive in the jungle before being captured, tortured and thrown into a POW camp with a group of eccentric prisoners who’ve been there for years. As Dieter tries to acclimate to the politics of the prisoner camp and the deteriorating conditions, he hatches an elaborate escape plan with the support of Steve Zahn’s Duane, only facing dissension from the mopey Gene, played by Jeremy Davies of “Saving Private Ryan,” both of whom have been driven insane by the conditions. The lack of food adds to the decreasing morale among their guards makes it easier for Dieter to finally go through with their escape, but he and Duane soon discover that it’s much harder to survive in the wild jungles of Laos, as they brave the elements without sufficient supplies.
Without having seen the original doc, it’s hard to know how much artistic license Herzog took with the various tortures and travails faced by Dengler, but this is another visually gorgeous film that returns Herzog to the jungle setting that has played such a large part in his cinematic history while visiting common themes of man against nature, especially in the scenes following Dieter’s crash landing and after his escape into the jungle. As beautiful as the film looks, the writing isn’t that great, and the movie tends to drag during the lengthy time spent in the POW camp. The attempt to keep things light with humor keeps this from ever being taken as seriously as a wartime drama like “The Deer Hunter” either.
On the other hand, Herzog couldn’t have found a better actor to capture Dieter’s brash and boisterous charm than Christian Bale, who quickly wins you over with his laissez faire attitude and his humorous reactions to serious situations. Dieter is a great film protagonist and a fine leader for the motley group of POWs who have to eat maggots and suffer all sorts of indignities at the hands of their captors. At times, Bale’s cockiness as Dieter goes a bit beyond the point where you can fully like him, but one has to respect Bale’s desire to play such unconventional roles that have him roughing it in the wild and taking bites out of real snakes. Steve Zahn has appeared in so many bad and mediocre comedies that it’s surprising to see him take on a more serious role and deliver a performance that equals and sometimes even surpasses that of Bale. By comparison, Jeremy Davies spends much of the movie moping and acting strangely, and while this normal routine might be appropriate for his whacked out character, it sometimes makes it harder to take their dangerous situation in the camp as seriously as one should.
The Bottom Line:
Although there are a few superfluous and slow scenes that could have been cut to keep things moving at a smoother pace, you have to respect Herzog’s ability to capture the nature and scope of Dengler’s capture and escape with all the brutality and beauty of his earlier films. There’s something very organic and natural about “Rescue Dawn” in a way only Herzog could have mustered, and that often makes up for the awkward and somewhat silly scenes.