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.