‘Rescue Dawn’ a surprise hit

With all the big-name films coming out this summer (most of which have failed to deliver), who would think that a small indie film would be one of the few actually worth watching? From German-born director Werner Herzog comes “Rescue Dawn,” a military film set in the wake of the Vietnam War. A rarity within its own genre, the film manages to tell one man’s story of survival without showing war as some glorified event.

The story follows US fighter pilot Dieter Dengler, portrayed superbly by Christian Bale. While on a top-secret bombing mission over Laos, Dengler is shot down by Vietnamese forces. Like a dedicated sea captain, he goes down with his aircraft. With the Vietnamese closing in on him, Dengler retreats to the thick brush of the Laotian jungle. Although he manages to evade capture for a small while, he is soon taken captive by the guerilla forces. After some torture sessions, he is finally put into a bamboo prison with other prisoners of war, including Americans Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies).

Not willing to sit around as a captive, Dengler rallies the other POWs to attempt a breakout. They set everything up in a matter of months, waiting primarily for the rainy season so their tracks are covered. One of the biggest factors holding back Dengler and his crew: the United States is “not in Vietnam,” therefore there is no full scale attempt to search for these prisoners.

What works incredibly well for the film is simply the way it is told. A good majority of the movie makes you feel like you’re watching some sort of documentary, the type where the camera is setup for you to merely sit back and watch. The pacing of the film is a bit on the slow side, but considering what it is about, it makes sense to be timed as is. Although some might find it annoying, it overall suits the movie very well.

And then there is the work of Christian Bale. Although Bale can claim no personal connection to war or being a real POW (in all honesty, how many actors could?), there is something about his performance that comes across in such a realistic way. It is a role like this that shows how versatile Bale can be. After all, he has gone from Batman, a hard-nosed cop in the ghetto, a magician, and now to this. He also went the full nine yards for this, loosing 44 pounds for the role.

Although Bale’s performance steals the show, don’t undermine Zahn’s. It is actually quite surprising to see such a good performance from Zahn, who many will recall from various sub-par comedies in the early 2000’s. According to a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Zahn also lost a great deal of weight for the role. Aside from the weight loss, he is able to give off the vibe that he truly is a man who has been cruelly imprisoned for such a long time.

And as stated earlier, the film does not glamorize the Vietnam War in any way, nor does it politicize anything. When something big happens, it doesn’t put Bale on a pedestal as some sort of hero. Bale is still on the level of the character he is supposed to play: a man struggling to survive imprisonment in a foreign country.

So if you are looking for an alternative to all those sequels and half-hearted movies out there, or can truly appreciate a quality film, give “Rescue Dawn” more than a decent chance. There’s just something about it that makes it enjoyable as a drama, but at the same time, a terrific war film that depicts an alternative side of battle. And with Bale’s terrific acting (and a surprising job from Steve Zahn) mixed with Herzog’s great story telling, there is no way to pass up “Rescue Dawn.”

4/4 stars