Rescue Dawn

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Movie Review by Neil Sadler

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell, Craig Gellis, GQ

Director: Werner Herzog

I am sure that the story of Dieter Dengler’s crash, capture and attempt to escape is a thrilling one. I am sure this story of endurance and guts, of the power of the human spirit to survive against the odds could be powerful but unfortunately RESCUE DAWN, in the telling of that story, neither thrilled nor moved me.

It starts off well. Onboard ship, Dengler (Christian Bale) and his friends prepare for a mission. The director, Werner Herzog, shows the camaraderie well. Here too, we get a feel for Dengler’s love for flying and for the exhilaration of flight. The scenes of the plane’s launch, flight and crash are dynamic and exciting.

Once shot down, Dengler’s survival in the jungle continues the pace well – until he ends up in a backwater prison with a ragbag collection of Americans and Asians captured by the Laos militia. It is here the story loses its way and it never really gets it back. It might be deliberate that the escape is long and laborious but it doesn’t make it easy to sit through. For a long time, not a lot happens.

No attempt is made to humanise his captors. We are never let into their thoughts and their casual cruelty, shocking as it is, loses its power without motive.

The other prisoners play like comedy sidekicks. Their deaths or betrayals too, seem oddly muted and without much resonance.

There were some moments where I felt as if I were watching a Mel Gibson production – without the ‘over-directing’ that he is prone to. Like Gibson though, this film revels in the pain and punishment it doles out – from maggot infested meals to beheadings with the odd lingering shot of leeches plucked from skin for good measure.

Christian Bale, so good in films from AMERICAN PSYCHO to THE PRESTIGE, seems far too healthy here unlike his dramatic weight loss in THE MACHINIST. Unfortunately though his acting makes up for this and is rather thin – played in a perpetual monotone. Steve Zahn, who usually plays comedy sidekick to bigger stars, does nothing here that really flexes his acting muscles.

This is not a war film. It makes no attempt to understand or rationalise either side in the American/Vietnam struggle. Herzog is interested in a person’s ability to survive – and as Dieter Dengler told the story – we know he survived. That the film descends into a bout of gung-ho back slapping at the end too does the film no favours.

Like the war itself, it started with good intentions but had less and less meaning as it went on.

2 out of 6 stars