Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Zach
Grenier, Pat Healy. Rated PG-13.
Dawn is the product of Werner Herzog’s decade-long campaign to
chronicle Dieter Dengler’s remarkable, death-defying experiences as a Navy
airman. Inspired, of course, by a true story, it is tense, riveting and
tastefully restrained – Rambo without
the jingoistic edge or bombastic excesses. A German-born pilot who joins the
Navy just in time for the Vietnam War, Dengler (Christian Bale) wears his
appropriated American pride on his tattered, bloody sleeve, but Rescue
Dawn isn’t about the pride of a nation; it’s about the
fortitude of a single man.
Dengler, shot down during his
first mission over the Laotian jungle, is soon captured by guerrilla forces and
given a choice – denounce American imperialism or be subjected to unthinkable
torture. For him, the choice is simple: Denying his adoptive homeland would be
a repudiation of the country that gave him his wings. Dengler, in many ways a
grown boy whose lifelong dream was to become a pilot, rejects the idea without
a second’s hesitation.
It’s a decision Dengler
lived to regret, had he not been fearless and endlessly resourceful, an
all-American hero waiting for his opportunity to shine. He is beaten, bound and
dragged through the jungle, and hanged from his ankles with an ant’s nest
tethered to his forehead. But his spirit is never broken. Arriving at a P.O.W.
camp where he is thrown in with the gentle, haunted Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene
(Jeremy Davies, of Saving Private Ryan),
an emaciated loner given to erratic mood swings, he remains buoyed by the one
thing his cellmates don’t have – hope.
tale of feel-good heroism
doesn’t offer many surprises, but then the outcome of Rescue
Dawn is never in doubt. Had Dengler not broken out of his
jungle prison and fought his way to freedom, it’s unlikely that his story would
have inspired not one but two Herzog films, the first being the 1997
documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
Here, the German filmmaker, so often fascinated by offbeat subjects and people
caught in the grip of impossible, ill-fated dreams, has crafted an
uncharacteristically conventional adventure, elevated by the performances of
his three leads.
Yes, there are times when Dengler,
boyish, cocksure and relentlessly optimistic, recalls Maverick, the cartoonish
hero of Top Gun who tackles every
challenge with calculated cool and a winning smile. But Bale keeps him grounded
enough to build a convincingly touching bond with Zahn, whose wry deadpan
sometimes provides a light touch of comic relief but more often speaks to the
soul-deadening realities of life in a prison camp. Davies, as Gene from Eugene,
remains purposely impenetrable – he, too, has spent too long mired in squalor,
but he refuses to imagine a life removed from it. He would rather accept his
misery than dare to overcome it, rising from his torpor only on the eve of his
Together, they are a formidable,
albeit slightly dysfunctional team of fugitives, struggling against time and
their own mortality to survive life in a jungle as unforgiving as their
captors. There are plenty of moving images in Rescue Dawn, but perhaps none as poignant as the shot of Dengler and
Duane, clinging to each other for warmth in the dead of night. It is an embrace
born of necessity rather than passion, but their love for each other is no less