Navy pilot Dieter Dengler just wanted to fly. Plus, he heard that the massage parlors and go-go girls in Saigon were really something. But on his very first mission--a secret one that would have him flying over Laos before the U.S. officially began their involvement in the Vietnam war--his plane was shot up and he was forced to crash land.
Based on a true story, "Rescue Dawn" tells the story of Dengler's capture, torture, bonding with a half-dozen other prisoners, and their eventual escape from Laotian captors and North Vietnamese regulars.
It's a surprisingly lyrical story, with the focus not on eye-bulging screams during torture sequences or intense drama during life-threatening moments. Director Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man") takes his visual and tonal approach from Dengler's character. The Navy pilot is an even-keeled, optimistic fellow who doesn't get too high when things look promising or too low when the bottom falls out. There's torture, yes, but Herzog shows just enough footage to suggest it. When, for example, Dengler (Christian Bale) is hung upside down with a hornet's nest strapped next to his face and spun from a tree to stir the insects, we know it's torture, we know what's going to happen. A more obvious director would have used CGI hornets to attack the man and puff his face up like a purple-bruised blowfish. When Dengler is crammed, feet first, into a small well that's just wide enough for a human, he's pushed under water several times and then left there under guard. Again, a director inclined to milk such scenes for all they're worth would have gone with a much longer torture scene. But we get the point. We know they didn't just bob his head under water a few times, as if it were a party game. This is Herzog's method, and that, plus a quietly powerful musical score and some neo-romantic cinematography (the film was shot in northern Thailand, and the scenery is gorgeous), make "Rescue Dawn" more lyrical than gritty.
In a way, it's a halfway film--hovering somewhere between "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Cast Away." The camera focuses on Dengler throughout much of the film. Even when he's in the small camp with the others, we still feel as if it's Dengler's world. Only when there's opposition to his escape plan by Gene (Jeremy Davies), a skinny long-haired prisoner who's been there for two years, do we get a stronger sense of community and a bump in tension. And when Dengler bonds with a likable but frail prisoner named Duane (Steve Zahn), it almost feels like a love story, Herzog handles their developing friendship with such sensitivity. Even then, the point of view remains consistently Dengler's, so that the things that happen have almost the same quality of a dream or hallucination.
Now, the price one pays for lyricism and staying true to a real-life story? For one thing, there's an awful lot of whispering in this film, so if you've gone to a bunch of rock concerts in your lifetime you probably are going to have to strain to hear. Also, there isn't the same kind of strong narrative arc that we get in typical war, rescue, or POW films. And while the cameras invite us to soak up the scenery and the situation with lingering shots and quiet sequences, the downside is that "Rescue Dawn" can feel slow-moving, especially in the early-to-middle stages of Dengler's internment. But what gets us through it is the sense of reality that Herzog imparts, and amazing performances by Bale and Zahn.
Then too, if you're at all inclined to ponder life's ironies, there are plenty of moments that invite thoughtfulness. When, for example, one of the prisoners overhears a plan the guards have hatched--to take them in the jungle and shoot them for escaping, so they can get back to their homes and help their families overcome a rice shortage--you realize that these Laotians are just regular guys who have the same kinds of priorities as their captives.
What that exposes, unfortunately, is the tendency to stereotype the guards as sadistic animals. They're given names by the prisoners that reflect their degree of cruelty--names like Little Hitler and Crazy Horse. Only a prisoner they call Jumbo, because he's half their size, is given any real positive human traits. That's the main weakness of Herzog's film. But again, Bale's and Zahn's performances are strong enough to make us overlook the film's deficiencies.
"Rescue Dawn" was transferred to a 50GB dual-layered disc using AVC codec at 34mbps. It's presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, which stretches to fill out an entire 16x9 television monitor. A number of sequences rely on soft-focus backgrounds, which, on HD, appear not just "Vasolined" but grainy. But bright-light wide shots and close-ups on the men and elements of the natural landscape show a good amount of detail, strong black levels, decent color saturation, and sharp edges. "Rescue Dawn" doesn't have that highly 3-D or plasticine look that some of the hyper-HD prints display, but given that it's a pre-Vietnam War era period film, that's just fine by me.
Fox has been going with the English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio, and it's here again, delivering a very good uncompressed sound that captures a lot of detail in both the low and high ranges. Alternate soundtracks are in Spanish or French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English (CC) and Spanish.
I have to say, though, that the menu screen for this title makes for the most difficult navigating I've ever seen on ANY disc. It's as if the whole thing is in keeping with the frustrating escape-mode of the film: find your way to the *#!@#** bonus features! Well, I almost tired of playing the game and just reported to you that the menu made it too difficult for me, and I wasn't going to waste any more of my time. I couldn't tell what was highlighted, so that makes accessing anything a bit of a crapshoot. Then, it took me awhile to figure out that when I got a red indicator on, say, "commentary off" I had to click ENTER to shift the cursor to the left in order to make it ON, then press enter again.
Now, once I finally got into these things, the commentary track with director Herzog, who's interviewed by Normal Hill, is pretty decent. But I have to tell you that what I appreciated most was the pop-up trivia track, which gave a running account of what happened to Dengler in real life--like, for example, he was captured TWICE (which isn't shown in the movie) and escaped twice. It's a riveting track that actually adds considerable depth and some tension to the re-viewing experience.
There are seven deleted scenes with optional commentary by Herzog, who again is interviewed by Hill, along with an "Honoring the Brave" memorial and "Preparing for Survival" short feature that gives us real Vietnam War-era POWs who went through similar situations. A multi-part "making of" documentary shows behind-the-scenes footage and covers the usual bases, and it's informative enough. But as I said, that "Before the Dawn Mission Secrets" trivia track is the best.
At a time when filmmakers seem to be going for more bang to get the bucks, it's refreshing to see a war film that doesn't focus on combat and battle sequences, but instead gives us a character drama that speaks to the resourcefulness and resiliency of the human spirit. And stellar performances by Christian Bale and Steve Zahn make "Rescue Dawn" a quietly compelling film.