Finally released to a wider audience after originally screening in Australia at festivals only, Rescue Dawn is an enthralling story of one man overcoming every obstacle in his way to achieve freedom. That it is based on a true story is all the more remarkable.
In February 1966, Navy pilot Dieter Dengler and his comrades take off for a bombing run in Laos – the war in Vietnam not yet underway. After being hit by anti-aircraft fire, Dengler crash lands and escapes into the jungle, only eventually to be captured and taken to a prison camp. After meeting fellow prisoners, including Americans Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), and several Air America pilots, Dengler rapidly decides to escape and must try to convince the others to join him. What follows is equal parts escape thriller and man versus the elements story, as Dengler and Martin attempt to get to Thailand and freedom.
Dengler is played with consumate skill by Christian Bale, who affords him cunning, guile, charm and menace. Bale is completely immersed in his role, and his career choices continue to mark him as a star to watch. American Psycho, The Machinist (El Maquinista), The Prestige and Batman Begins showcase his range as a lead capable of playing hero or villain with equal tenacity. Alongside him, Zahn gives a somewhat surprising performance in a dramatic role dissimilar to most of his previous work. Martin suffers most horribly, and Zahn conveys this suffering with forlorn eyes and meagre expression.
The jungle itself plays a major role throughout the film, with training videos about fighting in it later giving way to Martin’s explanation that even if they escape the camp it is the jungle they have to survive and that is the prison. The latter parts of the film featuring Dengler and Martin battling through dense foliage with a machete, removing giant leeches and hunting snakes for food, give life to what surely must have felt like a never-tiring enemy.
There are several problems with Rescue Dawn, in spite of the strength of the real-life story and the performances of its leads. Dengler is portrayed as almost maniacal in certain scenes in the camp, and his constantly positive outlook and generosity to his fellow prisoners occasionally seems a little unrealistic. He also often seems naïve, and yet his planning and escape suggest experience and initiative. Perhaps Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the documentary Werner Herzog originally made about this story, which features Herzog and Dengler returning to Laos and re-enacting parts of his journey, may shed more light on the true nature of the man depicted.
The secondary characters seem somewhat shallow and underdrawn, DeBruin in particular. The lack of time spent on establishing their experiences means that later in the film their actions are less easily understood. The actual escape scenes suffer most in this regard, with confusion as to the status of several prisoners, their eventual outcomes never further clarified. Its failure to adequately examine the impact of Dengler on the others is perhaps Rescue Dawn’s greatest weakness.
Apart from minor flaws, Rescue Dawn is a striking tale of heroism with a (partially) feel-good ending, excellent leading performances and a horrifying depiction of jungle warfare. Recommended.Rating: