First things first, Rescue Dawn is INSPIRED by actual events. This means that the film is not a verbatim retelling of historical events, but instead a fictionalized narrative with alterations for dramatic effect. I point this out so early because this film has received a critical backlash due to perceived deviations from the truth, as if artistic license somehow became taboo in the realm of movie making. As this is director Werner Herzog’s adaptation of his 1997 character driven documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, subjectivity was always going to enter into the equation.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is a pilot in the United States armed forces at the dawn of the Vietnam war. He has enlisted not out of patriotism, he is German born, but because he has been captivated by aviation ever since he watched allied fighter pilots bomb his home town in World War 2. Unfortunately, his first mission is a disaster that sees him shot down and confined to a hellish P.O.W camp in the middle of the jungle. His goal becomes to survive, and it is soon clear that the only way this will happen is escaping both the camp and the jungle itself.
It is Herzog’s portrayal of the inhospitable jungle and Dieter’s struggle against it that is the film’s high water mark and the most engrossing passage in his escape. His recent documentaries have masterfully focused on the tension between mankind and nature and again this theme has been explored to its potential. The jungle and all it contains becomes a living, brooding character, as much the antagonist of the piece as the Vietcong and several fantastic visuals hammer this home.
Another of Herzog’s pet tropes, man’s descent into madness, is less convincing than his previous work. Part of this may be due to the performance of Bale, who never seems to really inhabit the character, instead coming across as a Hollywood star hamming it up in a film whose style is more akin to the casual realism of a documentary. Steve Zahn as Duane, his accomplice in escape, is a far more effective personification of escalating cabin fever. The score is also worthy of mention for the haunting atmosphere it creates.
Rescue Dawn represented Herzog’s best chance to upscale from the art house ghetto to the mainstream penthouse and the tacked on, unnecessary ending suggests he may have realized it and, surprisingly for such a steadfastly independent film maker, been motivated by it. It’s a moment of tedium amongst the flashes of brilliance in a film that joins the other enigmatic curiosities which make up his formidable body of work.