There's a sense of austerity underlying "Rescue Dawn," all the more admirable for being so rare in Hollywood storytelling. Werner Herzog's fictionalized adaptation of his own 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," the new movie stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and then masterminded a brilliant escape from a guerrilla prison camp.
Fears that Dengler's breathtaking story would be reduced to just another summertime blockbuster were only partially allayed by the fact that Herzog himself would be responsible for the elisions, compressions and necessary compromises involved in shoehorning a complicated true story into a neat, three-act structure. He has succeeded, making a classic wartime thriller on a par with "Stalag 17" and "The Great Escape" while keeping intact the quirks and idiosyncrasies of Dengler's sometimes confounding character.
The movie begins in 1966 when the air crew of Dengler's Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin is ordered to fly over Laos into North Vietnam. Dengler, a German immigrant, encounters a terrifying attack during his very first mission, after which he is plunged into the jungle. Once captured, Dengler is given a chance to renounce America and go free; after first protesting that he's German, he announces that he will not sign the paper put before him -- not out of patriotism, one senses, but out of personal pride. He's taken to a prison camp, where he meets two more American soldiers, Gene (Jeremy Davies), who has been there for two years, and Duane (Steve Zahn; see In Focus on Page 33), who has been in a little less than that. They're the sad, wizened harbingers of the Hanoi Hiltons to come; part of "Rescue Dawn's" terrible power is all the carnage it anticipates.
The film is an original addition to the war film canon. It's an instant classic of the form, a portrait of courage and sacrifice at their most stirring, but subversively resisting cant and cliche. That such a masterful depiction of American heroism and can-do spirit has been created by a German art film director known for considerably darker visions of obsession is an irony Herzog no doubt finds delicious.
-- Ann Hornaday (July 13, 2007)
Contains sequences of intense war violence and torture.