Reel Opinions

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Rescue Dawn

No one will ever deny that Rescue Dawn is well-made, well-acted, and looks great. And yet, there is an undeniable emotional distance between the audience and the characters up there on the screen. This is a movie that literally cries out to be great, and although it comes close to it at times, it never quite takes off. It's far too content to fall back on military movie cliches and follow a lead character so whitewashed and optimistic, he barely seems human. Rescue Dawn is far from a bad movie, but it is an extremely disappointing one, because I could see so much more potential.

Set in 1965, young Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is on his first mission, flying over Laos in Vietnam. The film is set before the Vietnam conflict became a full scale war, so at this point, the soldiers really had no idea what they were getting into. Before Dieter takes his mission, we see him and his fellow soldiers mocking an instructional film about how to survive in the jungle. During the flight, however, Dieter is shot down, captured, and thrown into a prison camp. He befriends a few of his fellow captives, including a man named Duane (Steve Zahn) who does not seem to hold much hope for rescue, and a burned out hippie named Gene (Jeremy Davies). Dieter rallies the men to not give up hope, and is determined to escape from the prison. Despite the perils of the jungle just outside of the camp, Dieter is determined to find his way to his fiance waiting back at home, and refuses to die in the camp.

This is not the first time that acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog (2005's documentary Grizzly Man) has told the true life story of Dieter Dengler. Back in 1997, he did a documentary film on the man called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I have not seen that film, but I have a hunch it has to be a more realistic portrait of the man than this dramatization. One of the key problems with Rescue Dawn is that Dieter never once loses his optimism, or seems to have a moment where he comes across as being vulnerable. No matter what hardships or tortures he endures, he keeps on plugging away without a moment of weakness. Herzog obviously has great respect for the man, but I think he goes a bit too far in romanticizing the man and making him come across as a protagonist who can do no wrong. His fellow prisoners are equally one-note. They are great performances seeking for a character to inhabit. Most of the characters that surround Dieter come across as underdeveloped, or not strong enough to capture out attention. Zahn's performance as Duane is an example. For most of the film, he is rather subdued and not very interesting. It is not until the prisoners actually attempt to make an escape that the performances start to come alive. It's at this point that the movie itself comes alive as well.

The depiction of Dieter's escape not only from the camp but from the jungle itself is when things finally pick up. It is not portrayed as an action film, but as a realistic and often dangerous quest for survival. We follow Dieter and Duane as they attempt to make it to some kind of civilization, or to signal the helicopters they occasionally see flying overhead. These sequences are tense and quite involving as we watch the two men try to survive against the elements. It's also at this point that Dieter finally starts to resemble a real person, and looks like he's beginning to lose a little bit of his continuous spirit. Unfortunately, all of this comes literally during the last half hour of the film. Up to this point, the film is not bad really. It just never comes across as being as engaging as I thought it should. We learn nothing about Dieter or any of his fellow prisoners, and most of the scenes revolve around them sitting around talking about escaping, or studying the movements of the guards. One thing I did like about the prison camp sequences is that they do not offer subtitles for when the guards are yelling at the prisoners. It helps put you in the same position as the men, being in this foreign country, and not knowing what's going to happen next or what the men containing you are planning to do with you. Herzog was obviously trying for a realistic approach with this film, but at times, it is just too leisurely paced to be engrossing, and we find ourselves just sitting there, waiting for something to happen.
Rescue Dawn is a flawed film, but one that is probably worth watching at least once for the good moments. There's a lot to like here, they just never came together for me. I was just expecting a deeper look into these men who found themselves captives in a land they didn't understand. It at least made me interested in tracking down the original documentary film, as I'd like to hear about Dieter's experience in his own words. Something also tells me that film gives us a slightly less whitewashed and romanticized depiction of the man. I wanted a movie that really got deep into the soul of the story and the people who were there. What I got was a movie that I felt just skimmed the surface.



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