(Movies based on actual events are always a bit tricky. Werner Herzog already made a documentary about Dieter Dengler, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) and if I were interested in the facts about this story I would watch that. I approach movies like Rescue Dawn as a work of art; that is, I think they stand on their own and as complete works regardless or in spite of history.)
Though the movie takes place just prior to and during the Vietnam war, and so could probably be called a "Vietnam movie" and shelved proudly alongside films such as Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket, Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is not a movie about Vietnam. It is not a cathartic experience, not an attempt by the filmmaker to exorcise personal demons or to find the meaning of the conflict. It is not a modern political parable or a thinly veiled piece of pro-American rhetoric. Rescue Dawn is more mythic than all of these concerns and, at the same time, is so much more simple than them. The film is about human endurance and hope, about the ability to persevere is the midst of suffering. While it is biographically about one man, Dieter Dengler, it is mythically about humanity itself and its conflicts both with itself and with the savagery of nature.
Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a US fighter pilot who on his first mission over Laos is shot down, hunted, tortured and taken prisoner by the Viet Cong, all before America even officially declares war with Vietnam. While in the prison camp, Dengler encourages the other inmates to rekindle their hope and plot their escape, no matter how impossible or hopeless the situation may seem. Breaking out of the camp is only half the problem, though; huddled deep within the Laotian jungle, the camp is virtually inescapable. As Dengler's close friend Duane (played exceptionally well by Steve Zahn) says, the jungle is the prison. When Dengler and the inmates finally do escape their captors, their real challenge of survival begins. Nature, much more so than even their torturers, is the real antagonist in Rescue Dawn.
The relationship between man and nature is one of Herzog's strong fascinations, as anyone who as seen Aguirre: the Wrath of God or Fitzcarraldo could tell you. In the Herzogian milieu, nature is terrifying; saying that the prison is the jungle is tantamount to saying that the jungle is hell: there is no escape. Herzog's nature is savage, ferocious, terrifying and nearly omnipotent, a dark demon brooding not only over but inside mankind and waiting to swallow him up, much like Conrad's Congo in Heart of Darkness or Milton's Hell within Satan in Paradise Lost. The terrifying image in Aguirre of Klaus Kinski, his soul claimed by the jungle, drifting up the river alone, mad and raging, is the iconic Herzogian image of nature. In Dieter Dengler and with Rescue Dawn, however, Herzog seems to have found a way out of the dark jungle depths and into a new vision of humanity and nature. It is not hard to imagine how, after years of characters succumbing to nature, Herzog found the image of Dengler so compelling. Unlike Aguirre, Dengler walks out of the jungle essentially himself, having undergone no maddening transformation. With the character of Aguirre, Herzog created a myth of nature and man; with Dengler, Herzog deconstructs the myth and creates a new one, one in which a man need not become an animal and lose his soul to the jungle.
In a movie about a man overcoming Herzog's former vision of nature, the actor playing the man would need to be quite remarkable. And he is. Christian Bale's performance as Dieter Dengler is nothing short of perfect. It is nearly sublime. Bale, who has already proven himself so many times, delivers what could be his career-best performance, out-shining his former brilliances in American Psycho and The Prestige (in both of which he was very good). The depth of humanity and sincerity in his performance in Rescue Dawn is remarkable. Forget Tim Robbins: if I were to be imprisoned, I would want to be imprisoned with Christian Bale. Steve Zahn also, who I'd never really seen before in a dramatic role, delivers a startlingly brilliant performance as Dengler's emaciated fellow prisoner Duane who slowly finds his hope rekindled by their friendship. Men who live daily in their own shit have no secrets from each other and Bale and Zahn capture that vulnerability and courage brilliantly. The two actors are utterly convincing in their roles and the intimacy and intensity of their friendship is fierce and unforgettable.
Herzog knows how to tell a story. Even with a plot as seemingly simple as "they escape from prison into the jungle," Herzog finds a way to infuse the entire film with a slow and menacing intensity, whether it be through deliberate, uncompromising photography or through conspiratorially whispering nearly every line. It is refreshing to find that there is still a living director who can hold his breath and deliver a deliberate film, one methodically paced, one with relatively few extravagances and one which is never boring, never dull and always remarkable, always breathtaking.