As my readers might know, I've been a great
admirer of the work of actor Christian Bale. From
his debut in
EMPIRE OF THE SUN through his
supporting turns in fare like
LITTLE WOMEN (I
never understood how Winona Ryder could turn
his Laurie down) and
THE PORTRAIT OF A
LADY
to his leading roles in such diverse fare as
METROLAND, AMERICAN PSYCHO, THE
MACHINIST
and BATMAN BEGINS, the actor
has amassed an intriguing and eclectic resume.
And he's managed to do the work without
becoming tabloid fodder. After his stellar work in
last year's overlooked
HARSH TIMES, Bale adds yet another terrific
portrait to his gallery of characters. Teaming
with Werner Herzog, the actor stars as Lt.
Dieter Dengler, a real-life P.O.W. captured
during the early days of the conflict in Southeast
Asia, in the dramatic
RESCUE DAWN.

Now for those who have followed Herzog's
career, this is not the first time he has
presented Dengler's story on film. In 1997, the
director shot the nonfiction
LITTLE DIETER
NEEDS TO FLY
, a portrait of the German-born
Dengler who moved to the United States after
World War II and who was determined to
become a pilot. Enlisting in the Navy, Dengler
realized his dream, but on his first mission -- a
secret flight over Laos -- he was shot down and
eventually captured, tortured and imprisoned
with several other captives in a makeshift jungle
prison. The 1997 movie was filtered through
Dengler's reminiscences, but at the movie's
premiere, he reportedly told Herzog that the
story was not complete. It has taken Herzog
nearly a decade -- during which Dengler
succumbed to complications from ALS (Lou
Gehrig's disease) in 2001.

RESCUE DAWN is the resulting feature and it's
a stunner. Bale captures the bravado and the
swagger of a man who loves life and whose
spirit cannot be broken. The torture sequences
following Dengler's capture are some of the
most difficult scenes to watch but they echo the
inhumanity that war tends to ingrain in those
who have captured the "enemy." (It is not much
of a stretch to find parallels between both Abu
Ghraib and Guantánamo as well as imagining
the horrors captured American troops or those
taken hostage might face.)

Some have criticized the film for not humanizing
the captors but that is bogus. This is a drama
about a man's survival and relationship with
nature -- a key theme that Herzog has dealt
with in many of his films. In Bale, the filmmaker
has found the perfect actor to portray the
leading character. Noted for throwing himself
body and soul into his roles, Bale anchors the
film brilliantly.

One of the weaknesses of the film, however, is
the lack of character development for many of
the supporting figures in the prison, particularly
in the Asian men being held. There are two
other Americans being held and they are
portrayed by Jeremy Davies (who relies on his
patented shtick, stuttering, twitching, etc.) and
Steve Zahn (who delivers a breakout dramatic
turn lightyears away from his usual wiseguy
comic persona). Davies once was a promising
actor but whenever he's in a film now, I cringe
and cannot wait for his scenes to be over. I will
say he was a bit more tolerable in this effort
(undoubtedly due to Herzog's direction) but I
still found him unbearable. Zahn as Lt. Duane
Martin, on the other hand, became a haunting
presence in the movie and one can almost say
that the film became a nonsexual love story
between Martin and Dengler as they plan and
execute a daring escape and attempt to survive
in the harsh jungle.

While the final scenes are reportedly based on
fact -- at least as described by Dengler in the
earlier film -- they do carry a bit of jingoistic
flavor. For a Herzog film, they are also a bit
off-key, but they do not negate the achievement
that director and cast, especially Bale, have
wrought.
RESCUE DAWN, despite some flaws,
is a damn near great movie.

Rating:                B+
MPAA Rating:        PG-13 for some
                            sequences of
                            intense war
                            violence and torture
Running time:      126 mins.


Viewed at the Park Avenue Screening Room
RESCUE DAWN
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler
in
RESCUE DAWN
Photo by Lena Herzog
© 2005 TOP GUN PRODUCTIONS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED