The opening sequence in Werner Herzog's new film is immediately more engaging than any CGI feat of ingenuity I've seen all summer, simply for the fact that it's real. These were real bombs being dropped from real American planes during the lead-up to a very real war (despite whatever specious parlance of "police action" may have been used at the time) in Vietnam. Using these clips of an actual bombing campaign also lends a kind of authenticity to the non-fiction, albeit recreated, story that follows. I don't usually go in for biopics, but knowing that Herzog, critic's darling, has already filmed a documentary version of these events in Little Dieter Needs To Fly , including extensive interviews with Dengler himself, makes me feel like this is as close to the truth of what happened as any recreation is going to get.
Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler, played by Christian Bale, the lone survivor of a truly daring escape from a Laotian P.O.W. camp in the early days of the war. The film begins on an aircraft carrier in 1965 when no one thought full-blown war was imminent. Dengler and his crew are briefed on a top secret bombing campaign in Laos. While a teammate is yukking it up during a filmstrip educating the pilots on jungle survival tactics, Dengler pays close attention, which illustrates not prescience but a facet of his focused character. Bale does a fine job of becoming Dengler. His speech is overly formal, his jokes usually fall convincingly flat, but there is obviously a wealth of wit and fortitude flashing behind his eyes. While getting suited up for the flight, Dengler explains his decision to join up with the Navy: He just wanted to learn to fly, and to party on bases in Southeast Asia. He never intended to bomb anything or fight in a war. He just picked the wrong time to enlist.
His bad luck continues while on his first mission, only days into active service, when his plane is shot down. Crawling from a spectacular crash, he collects himself and hurries into the jungle for cover. His escape from Viet-Cong sympathizers only lasts so long before he is captured and dragged to a local magistrate. He is given the option of signing away his citizenship and denouncing America, but he refuses and is immediately subjected to torture. In a time when the Geneva Conventions have largely been revoked and there are public debates over which forms of torture are acceptable, Rescue Dawn unflinchingly showcases a host of non-lethal methods. After Dengler is beaten, hung by a wasps' nest, dragged by an ox and waterboarded, one sees how grueling and dehumanizing all methods are, and one gets a sense that our generation is no less culpable for its specious parlance of "information gathering tactics." After the torture, Dengler is shipped off to rot in an internment camp deep in the jungle.
While at the camp, mostly inhabited by other soldiers and Air America pilots, the film finds a surprising amount of levity. Faced with the worst possible scenario, the captured manage to find humor and solace in the most commonly human of shared experiences, everything from incontinence to discussions of what would make the perfect meal to memories of girls back in the States. Dengler explains without irony his decision to fly for the military. Born in Germany, Dengler was a young child when his village was bombed toward the end of WWII. He describes seeing the pilots whiz by as an almost spiritual experience (not unlike another Bale role), one that influenced him for years to come, and though he disassociates the pilots from the war that would ravage his homeland, he still has a childlike infatuation with the simple mechanical beauty of flight. Two fellow service members, Eugene and Dwayne, seem to regard Dengler, who never gives in to despair or hopelessness, as a natural leader. When he begins planning their escape, even the disagreeable Eugene comes around to the possibility of success. Unfortunately, Eugene has become too much a product of prison camp mentality and his own frail sanity, and when their escape actually works he is left wandering aimlessly in the jungle babbling, "where from here?"
Dwayne, a perfectly amiable but indecisive dependent played endearingly well by Steve Zahn, is the only one who sticks with Dengler, although their companionship is cut short. It's in the last reel of the film, as Dengler is shot at by his own countrymen and hallucinates a still-complaining ghost of Dwayne, that we see how clearly our human associations define us. Alone in the jungle, while resourceful, Dengler is little different than any other animal trying to survive. It's when surrounded by his friends in the camp and, upon his rescue, rejoicing in the arms of his fellow soldiers that he becomes an expressive, inspiring human being.