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Rescue Dawn
a review by Tom Condon, OP

German director Werner Herzog has for years been interested in the stories of human survival against the elements, from his classic film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, to his recent documentary, Grizzly Man. 

Several years ago, Herzog came across the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born American who was shot down in a secret mission over Laos in 1965.  Herzog made a documentary film about Dengler’s desire to be a pilot, entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Feeling that his previous film was incomplete, Herzog expanded upon it to make his current film about personal courage and perseverance, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as Dieter. 

Rescue Dawn opens with Dieter and his fellow pilots receiving instructions on their secret mission into Laos in the early days of American involvement in Southeast Asia.  On his very first mission, Dieter is shot down and is captured.  Dieter is tortured and ridiculed, at one point drug through a village by a water buffalo.  He refuses to sign a confession, and is thrown into a Laotian POW camp along with five other prisoners:  two Americans, Duane and Gene, and three Asian-American collaborators.

Much of Rescue Dawn takes place in the camp.  Dieter soon assumes a leadership role among the prisoners.  Both Duane and Gene have been worn down by torture, boredom, and fatigue.  Gene does not want to risk an escape, confident that they will be either released or rescued.  Duane suffers from physical symptoms as a result of maltreatment and lack of nutrition.  The men are shackled together at night to keep them from escaping, and subjected to other tortures and threats.  Dieter manages to keep a level head through it all and eventually plans and executes an escape from the camp.

After the escape, Duane and Dieter remain together in the dense jungle, evading capture while trying to signal American planes and helicopters. Their mutual commitment grows stronger as they battle the elements, including hunger and fatigue while in enemy territory.  As they travel together, Dieter and Duane become a real-life Sam and Frodo.  Duane begins to succumb to physical and emotional weakness to the point at which Dieter has to practically carry him.  Bale does a fine job as the courageous Dieter.  However, it is Steve Zahn, as Duane, who is most impressive.  Best known for light comedy roles, Zahn is great as the weary, haggard Duane, precariously close to giving up.  The haunted look in his eye conveys a window of the soul into a decent man driven to the brink.  This is a performance that deserves to be remembered at award time next year.

There is much to like in Herzog’s penetrating study of courage and character under overwhelming adversity.  I admired the restraint of Herzog’s filming, in contrast to many current filmmakers.  Herzog is not graphic in his depiction of torture, leaving much to the imagination.  Herzog’s has a fine subject for admiration in Dieter.  However, I wondered what contributed to Dieter’s strength of character, courage, perseverance, and faithfulness to his colleagues.  The screenplay reveals little insight into Dieter.  He speaks of his upbringing in Germany, youthful admiration for American pilots, and the fact that he wants to return to America to his fiancée.   Dieter is not a man given to grandstanding or speeches, and Herzog avoids sermonizing at all costs.  All of this is fine, but left me feeling that Dieter was an enigma.  I never understood what made him tick.

While Rescue Dawn is first of all about courage under adversity, it’s also about the effect of torture on people.  Duane is a tragic reminder of the horrific effect of torture on a fine, decent man.  In the terrible light of aftermath of Abu Ghraib scandal, and the continuing attempts to justify the use of torture, I find in Herzog’s film a plea for humane treatment of prisoners.  That’s reason enough to recommend Rescue Dawn.

Tom Condon, OP

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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