Rescue Dawn

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In "Rescue Dawn," screenwriter-director Werner Herzog continues his long obsession with obsessed men battling nature and themselves in a merciless wilderness.

That this particular protagonist, a German-born American Navy aviator shot down in Laos during the Vietnam conflict, will survive we know because Herzog made a documentary 10 years ago, "Little Dieter Must Fly," about his extraordinary story. This does nothing to diminish the harrowing tale of near-Messianic figure who wills himself out of a seemingly inescapable corner of Hell.

MGM has moved the release date of this film several times, finally pushing it to Wednesday, presumably to steal some Fourth of July patriotic fervor for the debut. One worries, though, that it might get lost amid the summer tentpoles despite it being Herzog's most mainstream and accessible film yet. Let's hope not.

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler and this is one of the actor's most complex and compelling performances. The movie stays with the character for nearly every shot, watching his transformation from a youth who embraces every aspect of the American way to a more sober individual whom nature and his fellow man want to break but can't.

The movie suggests that all the prisoners in a Laotian prison compound, run by proxy by the Viet Cong, are slightly mad. Bale shows how madness can creep slowly into a man's soul in ways much more frightening than physical abuse. Yet he never completely succumbs. Not that he doesn't see a ghost at one point and the rationality of his decision-making deteriorates somewhat.

As Dieter tells it to fellow Yank prisoners, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), he wanted to fly ever since an American fighter pilot zeroed in on him as a small boy in a German town during World War II. Even crashing in enemy territory during his first mission fails to discourage him. The first night in the prison camp, after being tortured for refusing to sign a "confession," he is plotting an escape. There is no escape, his fellow prisoners -- Americans and Vietnamese -- tell him. The jungle is the real prison. Where can you go?

But Dieter hatches a plan anyway and works tirelessly to convince others. He is the only true believer. But things go awry and he and Duane find themselves alone in hostile territory with no choice but to try to walk barefoot to the Thai border.

The brilliance of the film comes in small details: during the escape when Duane suddenly bends over to vomit because of anxiety and fear. Or in the strange smile on Dieter's face when he is paraded through a colorful village whose natives eye him with curiosity rather than hatred.

Zahn maintains the nuttiness that informs his comic performances, but here Herzog and the actor deepen the pathos in such behavior coming as it does in the face of almost certain death. Davies plays an airman with an unhinged mind who is all the more dangerous for that.

Herzog's use of lush jungle locations in Thailand, eloquent camera work and an unobtrusive but powerful musical score bring to life his latest story of a man in the wilderness battling the elements on his own terms.

RESCUE DAWN
MGM
Gibraltar Entertainment
Credits:
Screenwrier-director: Werner Herzog
Producers: Elton Brand, Steve Marlton, Harry Knapps
Executive producers: Elie Samaha, Gerald Green, Nick Raslin, Freddy Braidy
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Production designer: Arin "Aoi" Pinijvararak
Music: Klaus Badelt
Costume designer: Annie Dunn
Editor: Joe Bini
Cast:
Dieter Dengler: Christian Bale
Duane: Steve Zahn
Gene: Jeremy Davies
Y.C.: Galen Yuen
Phisit: Abhijati "Muek" Jusakul
Procet: Chaiyan "Lek" Chunsuttiwat
Little Hitler: Teerawat "Ka-Ge" Muenwaja
Running time -- 125 minutes
Rated: PG-13
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