Rescue Dawn – Movie Review

(Originally posted on 6-29-07 approximately)

I find Werner Herzog an endlessly intriguing filmmaker. He has solidly commercial instincts and ability, but he rarely goes for the easy film sell. If you just look at his filmography ( you get the sense of a very particular artist with very particular tastes and a well entrenched point of view that he uses to inform all of his work.

If he wanted he could work regularly in Hollywood at the Sidney Lumet/Sydney Pollack level of director (the level where A list stars like to hang out for those big Academy Award nominations and recognition – or at least used to during the 80s and 90s), however, he rarely does. That is why Rescue Dawn is such a treat. I just wished I hadn’t researched the real story it is based on after seeing it. Now I am second guessing everything I have ever thought of the acclaimed filmmaker.

The movie, based on a true story, follows Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, a naturalized US citizen who is shot down over Laos in the time prior to open hostilities with Vietnam. He is promptly captured and dragged across the jungle where he is tortured and then dropped in a prison camp with two other Americans and several Thai POWs. He finds the overall morale of the other prisoners low and immediately starts involving them in planning an escape. The guards are a mixed lot going from sadistic to friendly and food for the entire camp is low. He also has to deal with one of the other American prisoners who is convinced that they will be released soon and is against any escape attempts.

The movie is a tense, quiet look at one man’s drive to not accept his circumstance, which is kinda surprising given the subject matter, but not so much once Herzog is taken into consideration. The hardship of prison life is strongly alluded to and in certain instances clearly articulated. Christian Bale (Batman Begins and Reign of Fire) is his usual strong self as Dieter, and even continues his subscription to the Cast Away school of acting by losing a lot of weight for the second half of the movie to reflect the privatization that his character has experienced.

Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas and Saving Silverman) is excellent as Duane Martin, one of the American POWs that befriend Dieter. Jeremy Davies (Dogville and Manderlay) as Gene Du Bruin, the final American POW that is not interested in trying to escape c(reating the central human conflict of the story) is excellent as well, even if his role is a bit more cliché than the others.

There are, as mentioned above, three other prisoners that are completely secondary and are for the most part not explored, which I found disappointing. We rarely hear about the involvement of other countries in the Vietnam conflict and it would have been nice to have a little exposition on their role. However, it might have been out of place in this particular film, since it really focused as much as possible just on Dieter and his single minded determination to escape and return home so he could fly again. For a movie about the Vietnam War, it admirably avoids taking any kind of moral stand or commenting on the war itself.

I really liked this movie when I saw it. I found it so interesting and knowing it was based on a true story I immediately started to research it once I got home. Herzog has a long association with the real Dieter Dengler, having even done a documentary on him in 1997 called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I found that there are just a lot of blatant discrepancies – and believe me, I understand the need to change things for the purposes of a movie and I know that “Based on a True Story” generally means the studio legal department is trying to cover their butts. However, I guess I just subconsciously held Herzog up to a higher standard than I did for Hollywood in general. And specific to this movie, I just don’t think it is right when the real efforts of others and their positive contributions are slighted or completely misrepresented (

I still respect the talent, craft and ability of Werner Herzog as a filmmaker, and Rescue Dawn is a solid, solid movie, however, I think I will approach his storytelling tentatively for now on, especially where true life events are involved.

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