When going to see a war film, especially one set during the Vietnam War, you learn to brace yourself for shocking acts of violence, inhumanity, nihilistic depravity and the unraveling of any sort of a moral system. At times, it almost becomes a pornography of tragedy and violence - showing things to shock and titillate the spectator audience.
"Rescue Dawn," thankfully, is not one of these. Tempered by director Werner Herzog's tendency to blur the boundaries between truth and fiction, "Rescue Dawn" feels at times like a documentary, allowing the viewer breathing room to absorb the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American fighter pilot who was shot down over Laos on his very first bombing mission in February 1966.
He was tortured and held at a prison camp and, with the other American and foreign prisoners-of-war, escaped, surviving long enough to be rescued by American aircraft 22 days later.
The opening of the movie even looks a bit like a documentary until you get to a dreamy sequence juxtaposing grainy 60s' era footage of bombing missions - which could be recreations, it's hard to tell - with a lush orchestral soundtrack. Large pieces of flaming debris, houses and possibly bodies leap out with the grace of choreographed ballet dancers as the bombs explode in silent, deadly slow motion. This is not the first war movie to use this device to highlight an ironic beauty amid death and destruction, but it is still effective.
The film starts with a fresh-scrubbed Dengler, played by Christian Bale, prepping on the ship before his first mission, unwittingly gathering the items and knowledge that will be either priceless or useless to him later on.
We're thrown into a steamy jungle world when his plane is shot down and crashes into a rice paddy.
Dengler, no MacGyver by any means, has to quickly adjust to his new situation and escapes but is eventually caught by the communist Pathet Lao group.
He's tormented, shot at, beaten, toyed with and eventually held in a prison camp where he's the "new kid" in a ragtag group of American and foreign POWs, some of whom have been imprisoned for more than two years and are losing their grip on reality.
The prisoners, almost humorously, come off more like a bunch of cranky castaways on a desert island or bickering old men in a nursing home than prisoners of war. They gripe about each other's idiosyncrasies, ("if I have to hear about Oregon one more time!") and group cohesiveness is tenuous. All are skin and bones, and to watch the actual actors waste away is viscerally painful.
Dengler begins plotting a group escape almost immediately but ends up doing most of the heavy work himself. He and another POW, Duane Martin, escape into the jungle, where they have as much to fight from nature as from humans, including waterfalls, mudslides, leeches and starvation.
Their relationship is the most heartbreaking, filled with brotherly tenderness. As broken as they both are, Dengler finds the energy to present Martin with "gifts" and to take care of him. When Martin is beheaded by combative villagers, Dengler is haunted by his voice and his ghost.
On the brink of death by starvation and exhaustion, Dengler is eventually spotted and rescued by American aircraft 22 days after his escape.
The notoriously difficult director was a great admirer and friend of Dengler, who died in 2001 from Lou Gehrig's disease, and even made a 1997 documentary about him, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly."
Rescue Dawn is a larger-than-life version of Dengler's story, taking liberties with the truth in order to achieve what Herzog often referred to as the "ecstatic truth."
"I'm not an accountant of facts," he told Filmmaker Magazine in 2007. "I've always been after an ecstasy of truth, an illumination of truth."
Some of these liberties include turning Dengler into the lone, persevering hero of the prison break, complete with a Hollywood-ized, feel-good ending, unusual for Herzog, where Dengler's character is cheered and carried on the shoulders of his shipmates when he returns to his ship.
These liberties have upset the families of two of the other POWs who say their loved ones were portrayed falsely, as described on a Web site created to air their grievances, www.rescuedawnthetruth.com. In particular, they criticize the portrayal of Eugene DeBruin, played by Jeremy Davies, as unstable, weak, and cowardly - a character easy to hold in contempt and a foil for the strong optimism of Dengler.
Another of Herzog's reoccurring themes is man against nature, and you definitely feel that here as Dengler and Martin physically wrestle with the jungle that threatens to swallow them up in a million and one ways.
In the end, the movie is effective as a story and refreshing to watch in its simplicity and restraint. I would recommend it even to folks who don't normally watch war films.
"Rescue Dawn" is rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.