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Werner Herzog is a legend in the film world. Having made around 50 films, whether fiction or documentary, he is known for grueling shoots and a take no prisoners attitude. One of his early films actually had a group of people carry a ship up a mountain; the guy gets what he wants and as a result usually has some great stories or even a film about the making of his epics after their completion. Supposedly his new narrative tale, Rescue Dawn, is no exception. I have not heard much, but I have gleaned that the shoot was a bit trying for all. After seeing how wasted away some of these actors were, you can imagine that they were put through the process as though they really were prisoners of war. We have a realism that isn’t common in many films of this kind—there is dirt, violence, maggot consumption, blood, death, and comradery. If nothing else, this story is a love letter to Dieter Dengler, the man for whom it is based and the focus of Herzog’s 1997 documentary on his life. Rescue Dawn is a heroic journey of the heart and mind to never give up and to survive at all costs.

This movie is very deliberate and methodical in its construction. There are many scenes shrouded in silence while the camera tracks our characters or the jungles of Thailand, filling in for Laos. While calm and serene in scope, these quiet moments just help to amplify how alone our POWs are in the world. Starving to death and tortured, they are waiting for the opportunity to escape and run for sanctuary and rescue. Their captors are mostly vicious creatures, prone to abusing the Americans each time a plane flies by as though they have called it over. However, while the prisoners are hungry, so are the jailers. It is only a matter of time before opportunity strikes and an escape can be hatched. The main portion of the film is the time in captivity with a bunch of guys that have all but given up hope after the two or so years they have endured already. Once Dieter arrives with his hope, vigor, and ideas do the others start believing in life again. Herzog does a wonderful job at getting the mood correct at this time, juxtaposing the hope against the solemn, defeated mentality that was prevailing.

The reason we can sit through the tortures and the terror of not knowing whether they will all make it out alive is in the bookending Herzog gives us. Our entry point to the film is at the start of a mission to bomb specific targets in Laos, before the Vietnam War really turned into one. The jokes and attitudes of the soldiers are welcoming and an enjoyment to watch. It really gets you into the film with a smile, helping to make the transition to survival amidst horrible forces easier. Even at the end we are given some more laughs, getting us out of the morose mood we have been lulled into during the bulk of the movie. It is good to see Toby Huss, as Spook, in the middle of it all, instigating the humor. Old Artie from the brilliant “Pete & Pete” adding some needed comic relief to an otherwise serious drama. The ending never seemed contrived or easy either, every moment is true and right in the full scheme of things.

All the landscapes and realism in environment mean nothing without the people to make it all work. Whom I assume to be mostly untrained actors in the Viet-Cong roles, all do a very good job. If anyone can handle amateurs to work professionally and realistically it is Herzog. This is, afterall, his first film with a predominately English speaking cast. He is used to taking the locals under his wing and letting their real life experiences infer on their performances. However, it is our three American soldiers that keep the story glued together. Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies have all taken the plunge into darkness and stayed there to make the story perfect. Credit must be given to both Davies and Zahn for allowing themselves to waste away to skin and bone, but they are starved for the entirety of their roles. It is Bale who actually transforms before our eyes from healthy fighter pilot to beaten and worn prisoner. The guy is possibly the best actor working today, yet his utter disregard for his body at the need of his dedication makes you wonder how long he can keep it up. Going through the weight changes that he has the past five years or so would reek havoc on anyone. Hopefully Bale knows his limits and doesn’t continue to push them to the point where he can no longer perform.

Davies shows why he needs to be used more in Hollywood. The guy can act and has not shown me a bad performance yet. Usually the mousy, nerdy kid, he transforms himself into a slowly degenerating soldier both physically and mentally. Despite his skeletal appearance he still is able to give a piercing stare to strike true fear in those he is at odds with. Bale is superb, as always, with his infectious smile coming out during even the hardest times, pulling his friends together to continue their journey to freedom. Yet it is Zahn who really shows poise and professionalism. Mister Funnyman himself is nowhere to be seen in this beaten man, reduced to an infinite fear for all that is around him. With what is no question his best acting to date, Zahn encapsulates the man with whom nature and external forces have come down on too quick, and no matter what glimmer of hope he can still see ahead, it just might not be enough.

Rescue Dawn 8/10

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photography:
[1] Steve Zahn, Christian Bale. Photo by Lena Herzog. © 2005 TOP GUN PRODUCTIONS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Jeremy Davies. Photo by Lena Herzog. © 2005 TOP GUN PRODUCTIONS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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