Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn isn’t a fun movie, but it is a well made film with a collection of strong performances that provide stark drama in the jungles of southeast Asia. Based of the true story of the only American POW to ever make it out of the Laotian jungle, it’s an experience to remember. In 1997 director Werner Herzog captured Dieter Dengler’s life in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly; now ten years later Herzog returns to give us a film based on his remarkable tale.

On his first flight Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down over the jungles of Laos. He survives for days on his own before being captured and taken to a POW camp deep in the Laotian jungle.

In the camp Dieter meets other prisoners including Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies) from Eugene, Oregon who is positive the war will end and they will be released any day and Duane Martin (Steve Zahn). There are many other smaller roles in the film, but the friendship and conflict between these three characters represents the core of the film.

For months Dieter survives in the camp as he and the other prisoners are slowly starved (each actor lost a terrifying amount of weight for these roles), with only one thing on his mind - escape!

The performances are all first rate, and although Bale carries the bulk of the film smaller performances from the likes of Zahn and Davies also need to be recognized.

Herzog and the film have taken some heat from Jerry DeBruin, who was critical at how his brother was depicted as both a coward and a man who had long ago lost the best parts of his mind. The performance of Davies in the role is quite memorable. Artistic license is the price you pay in films like these which are either “based on” or “inspired by” true events. Even if Herzog has taken some liberties, as writers and directors are prone to do when adapting a story to screen, in order to create a more interesting film, the conflict between Eugene and Dieter in the camp provides some terrific tense moments that help sell the story on screen. In a strictly historical context there may be issues, but in terms of how the characters interact and move the story along it simply works, and works well.

Rescue Dawn is a terrific little film in terms of acting and in simple and direct storytelling. Herzog strips away the Hollywood trappings and gives us a minimalist look at one man’s journey through hell and his struggle to get home. After seeing the film I imagined what a director like Michael Bay would have done with such a project and shivered. It’s also nice to see Zahn in a role where he isn’t playing merely the fool or comic sidekick. His comic timing mixed with his fear and immense sadness prove that he, like his fellow actors in this film, can play a multitude of emotion on screen. After playing for a few weeks in limited release the film opens wide today; if you’ve got the time, and can find it playing in your area, you should give Rescue Dawn a chance; I think you will be glad you did.

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