Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was a Navy pilot sent to Vietnam for a tour in 1966. During a bombing raid, Dieter was shot down behind enemy lines, where he escaped serious injury, but not North Vietnamese soldiers. Sent to a prison camp for his crimes, Dieter was subjected to torture, starvation, and psychological terror as his hopes for rescue slowly dwindled. Leaving him with one choice, Dieter and other prisoners (including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) form a plan to break out of the camp, leaving themselves wide open to the horrors of Mother Nature as they search for freedom.
Returning to the thorny fields of narrative features after a long stint churning out documentaries focused on illuminating the human spirit, director Werner Herzog finds a peace with "Rescue Dawn" that's unmistakably Herzogian. The story whisks the filmmaker away to his beloved areas of exploration, playing to his strengths as a director instead of challenging him to reach a higher standard.
Frankly, this is most likely the best Herzog film I've seen to date; the director strips away layers of pretense and bleary-eyed waddle to engage the viewer with a simple tale of survival. When I write "simple," that's exactly what "Dawn" is: a succinct motion picture that ignores the structure traps similar product is beholden to. Dieter's story is a straightforward odyssey of cultural bewilderment and pride and Herzog has the utmost respect for those emotions. Instead of cluttering the script up with artifice, he stays alert to Dieter's journey, permitting the actor lovingly detailed moments of reaction and dreamlike expressions of hope and courage.
Herzog also find the splendor in the landscape, molding Dieter's journey through Laos as a wonderland of threat and surprise, where behind every rock could find rescue or yet another landscape roadblock. "Dawn" is concerned with endurance, and the film follows every inch of the escape, slowing down to survey Dieter's skills in the field, including the creation of fire, navigating raging leech-infested waters, and wearily hacking away at endless foliage to clear himself a semblance of a path. It's almost procedural in execution; Herzog is completely devoted to his characters even through the mundane acts of their quest for freedom.
What this attention does is generate an impenetrable sensation of location; Vietnam itself becoming the ultimate antagonist. The audience is made to feel in the thick of the hunt, bleeding and starving with these men as they vigilantly plan their escape. "Dawn" is a visceral film, which is ultimately a credit to Herzog and his patience with the story, allowing the audiences plentiful opportunity to process Dieter as a man as well as a creature of survival.
It goes without saying the Christian Bale is one of finest actors of his generation, and he continues to floor me with his range. In "Dawn" Bale plays an undemanding flyboy; a Naval officer electing the heat of combat just so can fly his adored planes. Bale plays bravado and authority with meticulousness, but once the fatigue of defiance starts to settle in, along with deprivation of food and water, Bale turns Dieter into a shell of man with a singular mission to get the hell out of his confinement. He's utterly convincing in every scene.
Also of merit is the supporting work from Zahn, who molds a chilling portrayal of a soldier eaten away by his imprisonment. Gaunt and lifeless, Zahn turns himself inside out for the first time in his career. Less can be said of Davies, who delivers the same performance he always provides: twitchy and prolonged. An actor of zero range, Davies is the weak link of the chain here, spinning what should be a wounded expression of psychological torment into a hacky Charles Mansion riff that belongs in a different movie.
An expansion of Herzog's 1997 documentary on Dieter, "Dawn" endeavors to dramatically appreciate the pilot's test of stamina with details alive and devastating, and it makes for mesmerizing cinema. "Rescue Dawn" is stark, blessedly simple, and encrusted with a thickened level of primitive sophistication, celebrating the fight to survive with euphoric and evocative visual brush strokes.