Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn is the film that is loosely based on Dieter Dengler's experiences as a prisoner of war in Laos in 1966.  Dengler published a book back in 1983, Escape From Laos, that probably tells basically the same story, but this film is primarily inspired by the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  Werner Herzog directed both Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter... and found Dengler's story so compelling that he found two very different ways to tell it.

The plot is a simple one.  Dengler (Christian Bale) is an American pilot in the mid-1960s that has a bombing mission over Laos.  He gets shot down, which was especially bad in Laos because the US wasn't supposed to be there at all; that essentially means that the US government would not be using diplomacy to get the POWs in Laos home, because the US didn't officially have troops there.  Yes, I know...it sucks to be Dieter Dengler (and not just because of the name).  Dengler is captured by men affiliated with Pathet Lao, which is approximately the Laotian version of the Viet Cong in Vietnam.  When he was initially captured, Dengler was given the chance to denounce the United States by signing a pre-written letter in exchange for leniency; Dengler refused to denounce his country and was sent to a prison camp.  The camp is guarded by a relative handful of men (maybe fifteen or so) and there are six POWs, including Dengler.  Dengler instigates an escape plan, but that's really the small picture.  Even if the POWs escape, they have a dense jungle filled with disease, enemies, and precious little nutrition surrounding them on all sides.  How are they supposed to be rescued from there?

For a movie about POWs, this movie spends relatively little time in the prison camp.  A decent-sized chunk of the story takes place there, to be sure, but I would estimate that less than half of the film is set in the camp.  That really puts a lot of the focus on Christian Bale to carry this picture, which he does, often with extended periods with minimal dialogue.  I don't consider Bale an explosive or overwhelmingly great actor; I think he approaches his roles methodically and tries to pay attention to the details.  In this regard, he does a great job.  His mannerisms, from the way he behaves in the jungle at the beginning and end of the film to the way he eats his worms and grubs in the prison camp, feel authentic.  He certainly looks like someone who spent time as a POW; he lost over 50 pounds to play this part.

Bale wasn't the only actor to lose weight for this movie; Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies lost 40 and 33 pounds, respectively.  Both actors turn in good performances here.  Zahn is primarily known as a comedic actor, but he does a good job as the POW that is the least depressed and deluded when Dengler arrives.  As such, he becomes Dengler's partner in crime and shares a lot of screen time with Christian Bale.  Personally, I like Zahn best when he is stretching himself (Happy, Texas and Out of Sight are good examples of Zahn's talent for layered comedic roles), and playing an ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance is a refreshing change of pace from his typical buddy comedy fare.  Davies has a lot of fun playing the delusional member of the group, insisting that diplomacy was the only way back to the US and he would rather ruin an escape attempt than risk his diplomatic rescue.  Davies' character is interesting because it gives an unexpected source of conflict that produces some unusual results.  The rest of the supporting cast is solid, but not particularly noteworthy.  The Pathet Lao appeared to be mostly evil, which may be an oversimplification, but was probably a valid point of view coming from a POW.

Despite the lengthy periods with limited dialogue, Herzog does a good job keeping the suspense and danger in place.  This could be a film that tries to convey the exhaustion that Dengler experienced, but Herzog wisely chose to compress time and focus on immediate threats whenever possible.  The cinematography is good and there are no truly weird moments, which makes this the most viewer-friendly film Herzog has directed to date.  There has been some dispute over how true this "true story" is; the family of Davies' character has set up a website that attacks the film's accuracy in general and the portrayal of Jeremy Davies' character in particular.  While I have no doubt that Herzog changed some aspects of the story to make a more suitable narrative, I find myself pretty indifferent to complaints of inaccuracy.  Herzog claims the sole writing credit for the movie (despite the fact that Dengler wrote his own book about his experiences), which tells me right away that he chose to change some plot elements for dramatic purposes.  As long as Dengler didn't get a writing credit and the movie is not promoted as a biopic, that's okay by me.  My main problem with the film has to do with the plot; by spending so much time out of the prison camp, the immediacy of the escape is diluted.  That is a necessary problem, given the story, but the escape wasn't as cathartic as it should have been.

This is a move that is difficult to break down into individual components because it really is a cumulative effect.  The ways that each character reacts to their stressors might be unexpected at times, but it is logical, which is difficult for a director to pull off.  The physical work the actors put into their roles combines with an unusually restrained directorial effort from Herzog to make the best POW war movie since The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

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