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Based on the true story of German-born Dieter Dengler, who dreamed of being a test pilot and thus made his way to America, where he joined the military in pursuit of his obsession to fly. On his first mission in Vietnam, he is shot down and captured by Vietcong guerrillas.
In the tradition of The Great Escape and The Deer Hunter, Rescue Dawn is Werner Herzog's take on the pulse-pounding POW genre. Unlike most such efforts, however, his isn't just based on a true story, it's a remake of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. German-born Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale, who first made his mark in Steven Spielbergs prison camp drama Empire of the Sun) has longed to pilot a plane since he was a boy. When he joins the Navy during the Vietnam War, he gets his wish. Then he's shot down over Laos. Though he survives, Dengler is captured by the Pathet Lao. Through his internment, he meets Duane Martin (Steve Zahn in his finest performance), with whom he becomes fast friends. While Dengler is arrogant and resourceful, Martin is patient and humble. With Dengler's assistance, the prisoners escape, but the untamed wilderness turns out to be just as dangerous (cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger ably captures its cruel beauty). Those who've seen Little Dieter know how this tale ends. Suffice to say, Herzog's reenactment makes for rousing entertainment. If the film has a flaw, it's that the rah-rah finale plays like something from out of a mainstream sports movie. That quibble aside, the actors, including Jeremy Davies as a delusional campmate and Toby Huss as a fellow flyer, are aces. And Herzog, who's been concentrating on nonfiction, like Grizzly Man, proves he can direct a Hollywood-style action epic with the best of 'em. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
Beyond Rescue Dawn
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Christian Bale Films
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Stills from Rescue Dawn
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I never wanted to see us in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean I didn't respect the soldiers who were there. I wanted all of them to come home safely. I cried for those I knew who were severely injured or died.
This film is one of the most striking accounts I've ever seen about the war. I've heard horror stories from people I've known over the years who have talked about their tour(s) and this film shows how it must have been for those who had to endure prisons in the jungle. I'm not sure many POWs ever escaped from those camps, but Dieter certainly did.
As an aside, I just finished reading an account of the prisoners who were with Dieter in the prison camp. The real story is quite different than the one told in this film. Gene was not the deranged one, and the rest of the prisoners who escaped had already devised a plan to someday escape when Dieter arrived. However, this film is still quite a story of survival. In reality, Dieter died of ALS in 2001 after years as a TWA pilot.
Dengler doesn't do any of that (though he does, satisifyingly manage to mow down the prison guards with their own weapons. This is, after all, a TRUE story, and a remarkable one. Without Dengler's dogged determination to survive, he and his fellow prisoners would all have disappeared off the earth.
As a dedicated "Justified" fan, I was happy to see my good friend Dickie Bennett ... er ... Jeremy Davies ... looking and sounding much like the Dickie I know so well. ;-)
The story itself is incredibly compelling. Brutal, real, sad, inspiring. All of that. The more so because it is apparently mostly true (I gather that there are some descendants of some of the secondary characters who dispute some of the movie's accuracy).
The movie isn't long, but you feel like you have been through the ringer. Never boring, the movie paces itself remarkably well, alternately showing the painful slow passage of time and then with the anxious desperation of events that quicken the pace.
I am very glad I sought this one out.