Summer's cinematic rhythm of fun and fantasy is broken by Rescue Dawn, a survival saga that would be unbelievable if director Werner Herzog hadn't already shown it to be true.
Ten years ago, Herzog released the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, telling the story of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, a German expatriate. Dengler's obsession with flight began during World War II, a memory that becomes a touching monologue midway through this dramatization.
Dengler got his wish, flying bombing missions over Vietnam and Laos in 1965, before the United States was officially involved in Southeast Asia. He was shot down, taken prisoner by the Viet Cong and made a daring escape into a jungle even more dangerous. Knowing that he survived - Herzog interviewed him for the first version - doesn't make Rescue Dawn any less gripping.
As Dieter, Christian Bale again proves himself as an actor who'll do anything to make a role genuine. Once again, he drops a lot of weight (although not to the shocking extent of The Machinist), eats bugs and a snake, gets tortured and endures harsh elements. Bale is precisely the kind of daring actor Herzog likes in daunting conditions, sharing the filmmaker's fascination with man vs. nature and other dangerous men.
Rescue Dawn is akin to the POW midsection of The Deer Hunter, stretched to feature length. No subtitles are used so Dieter's captors are as confusing to us as to him. There's a constant feeling that something terrible will happen, even when Herzog sends a few U.S. choppers overhead.
And Herzog discovers more intimidating hazards when Dieter and fellow escapee Duane (Steve Zahn) run through the jungle. We occasionally marvel at the actors dealing with natural obstacles, then realize Herzog has an entire crew right along with them. His obsession with forbidden territory is legend after making Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God drove Klaus Kinski over the edge.
Bale and Zahn channel that potential insanity into great performances. Their thousand-mile stares possess an out-of-body glint. Dieter never buckles - Herzog won't allow him any flaws - but Duane is a ghost when we meet him who dies a little more each scene. Usually a comedian, Zahn is a serious contender for year-end honors.
Bale doesn't have as great an arc or downward spiral to play, but he maintains an impressive pace of fear, resourcefulness and true grit. Dieter reacts to captivity with anger, sarcasm and even brief flirting, so his psyche is always in flux. We aren't sure if it was stable before, judging from precrash scenes. This is another of Bale's deceptively complex performances from the inside out. Like Herzog, he doesn't need much of a script to tell a story.
Rescue Dawn feels slightly padded, as Herzog indulges his foliage fetish and stages a few too many close calls. Yet he never loses our attention or allows that tightness in our throats to subside until it becomes a full-fledged choke. The fantasy heroes of summer movies haven't done that.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or email@example.com.
Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Toby Huss, Francois Chau
Screenplay: Werner Herzog, based on his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Rating: PG-13; violence, torture, profanity
Running time: 126 min.