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Rescue Dawn

The year's best ensemble cast isn't even Rescue Dawn's biggest asset. That would be writer-director Werner Herzog, without whom the movie would've been made with uber-testosterone instead of being about it.


Rescue Dawn is not a movie about war, despite its Vietnam War setting, or even so much a prisoner of war, even though that's what its hero is; rather, it is a true story of a man's will and ability to survive…anything. And with Werner Herzog behind the camera, there couldn't be a better marriage of director to subject matter. In 1966, German-born American Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was excited to be deployed on a top-secret mission, but the mission and the excitement were short-lived as his plane was shot down around the jungles of Laos. Before long, Dengler is captured and tortured by the Laotian equivalent of Viet Cong, whose leaders eventually lock him up in a makeshift cell. There he meets other POWs, including Americans Gene (Jeremy Davies) and Duane (Steve Zahn), who have been held for upwards of two years. His newfound friends are emaciated and understandably delusional, but Duane has managed to sustain a faint sense of reality. And when Dieter tells the group of his escape plan, Duane is the only one to not ask questions. The escape is unexpectedly moved up and not without a hitch—not everyone will make it. Furthermore, once they're free from Viet Cong, the men are held captive by the jungle. But Dieter's madness winds up his greatest ally, whereas others' fatally slows them down.


How does a contemporary big-time Hollywood actor transition financially, psychologically, professionally and linguistically from Batman to Grizzly Man (with a pit stop en route as a 19th century English magician)? Only Christian Bale could ever answer that. His filmography may register all over the radar, but Bale is one of the most consistently great actors of his generation. And although Dawn might not have the Oscar pedigree or campaign power of a studio movie, Bale is nomination worthy. A dialect virtuoso the way Benicio Del Toro is considered to be, Bale—who's British—is spot-on with the subtle nuances and fluctuating enunciation one might expect from a German-American, or any foreign-born American. But more amazing is his mental transformation into Dieter, a survivor who won't take death for an answer. If Bale gets an Oscar nod, so should Zahn, a journeyman actor always associated with the comedic-sidekick role. It's dramatic sidekick for Zahn this time, and he wears it well, from the beyond-scruffy beard on his face to the transparent hope on his face. Rounding out the best ensemble cast of 2007 is Davies (Saving Private Ryan), whose chameleonic career reads like Bale's—not to mention the fact that Davies' startling weight loss for this role eerily resembles Bale's for The Machinist. Davies' Gene, although a somewhat minor character, is the bony face of spirit-battered POWs; it's scary, and occasionally perversely comedic, to watch his hallucinations unfold.


Forty-plus years into his career, legendary German writer-director Werner Herzog is as enigmatic as ever—and yet so predictable. It's as if he remains somehow unaware that he keeps tackling the same stories about males who, like him, are obsessed; or, in some abstractly Freudian way, his filmmaking is the ultimate exercise in narcissism for exploring versions of himself. Whatever the explanation, Herzog continues along this unwavering path in Dawn, and his obsession is our gain. Herzog's latest finds him just as smitten with his protagonist, Dieter, as with his de facto antagonist, the jungle. For Dieter, the writer in Herzog crafted someone who takes on different forms: a sponge to his environment, an oxymoronic superhero of a human, an entity that is everything but scared. And it's highly fascinating to watch—thanks to an adept Christian Bale—Dieter go from a brash young man to a man of the wild to, briefly, a madman—but, again, never a scared or desperate man. That sort of attention to detail to a character could only come from a filmmaker who doesn't make a movie unless the story is close to his heart. As a director, Herzog pays as much respect to the jungle here as he did the bears in his Oscar-nominated documentary Grizzly Man. For even at Dawn's most harrowing, the jungle is soothing. Which is probably Werner Herzog's dictum on nature in general.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.