Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rescue Dawn

During the Vietnam War, German-born Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. fighter pilot, is shot down over Laos and taken captive by enemy soldiers. Interned in a POW camp, he and his fellow prisoners (Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies) endure torture, hunger and illness while they await their chance to escape. Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn't even know where he is--but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, accompanied by Lt. Duane Martin (Zahn), his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.

This is a remarkably well made and superbly acted film that concentrates more on the human and emotional aspects of Dengler's true story rather than trying to twist the events into an "action movie" and depict Dengler's character as an invincible savior. The real focus of the film is Dengler's desire to be free outweighing the always looming threat of torture and death at the hands of Vietnamese hostiles. The torture scenes are realistic but not graphic or "over the top" as many films tend to be in an effort to over emphasize what the characters have been through. The thought of being tied to the ground, spread-eagle and fully clothed, for several days while exposed to the Vietnam sun with no "personal time" breaks is brutal enough without exaggeration.

Christian Bale is absolutely perfect as Dengler with a flawless German/English accent and no trace of his true Welsh/British upbringing. Bale effortlessly embodies the fresh excitement of a pilot going on his first mission and, more impressively, he displays the struggle to survive an unimaginable and potentially lethal situation with a grim determination that is easily recognized as a trait everyone likes to hope they possess, but few are ever able to tap into. I definitely believe that Bale's penchant for roles such as this, as opposed to more flashy "mainstream" roles, is what makes him such an accomplished actor.

I must mention the fact that, even though I went to this movie expecting to see an excellent bit of acting by Bale, I was completely unprepared for the amazing performance of Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. This was the first time I've seen Zahn play such a broken and fatigued character and he was not only convincing, but he was able to capture the haunted and empty stare that is so often seen on the faces of P.O.W.s in old black and white photographs. Davies, on the other hand, portrays how such captivity can affect a person's mental stability inflicting delusions and paranoia. It's my understanding that Zahn lost over 60 pounds for his role and Davies looks completely emaciated and near death.

I understand that "war movies" don't appeal to everyone, but don't make the mistake of thinking of this film as being about war, because it's not. This is the story of survival in an almost pure form. The war is simply a situation, no sides are taken, no politics are invoked and there's no blazing glory. If you do see this movie and enjoy it, I recommend seeing the 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," the complete story of Dieter Dengler written and directed by Warner Herzog, the same writer and director of this film.

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