August 2, 2007

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Rescue Dawn (PG-13)
Christian Bale plays the endlessly optimistic real-life Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn, a movie by Werner Herzog based on the story from his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about an American pilot shot down over Laos in the mid-1960s.

It’s so early in the Vietnam war that the U.S. government missions to bomb the Ho Chi Min trail, the supply route connecting North and South Vietnam that ran through Laos and Cambodia, are still highly classified. But new pilot Dieter Dengler (Bale) isn’t nearly as interested in the geopolitical ramifications of his orders as he is in the giddy thrill of going out on his first mission. A German-born true-blue American (his accent, at least as Bale plays it, has rounded into something like a “da Bearsss” Chicagoan speech pattern), Dieter and his friends give a little group hug on the deck of the aircraft carrier before taking off — to make sure they all return safely, Dieter says. Dieter, however, doesn’t make it far into the war — only about 40 minutes, I heard Herzog say on a recent Fresh Air interview — before his plane is shot up and he crash-lands into the marshy jungle of Laos. He manages to evade detection for a day but is then picked up by some mix of Laotian fighters and North Vietnamese and taken to a prison camp. There he meets some southeast Asian P.O.W.s and fellow Americans Gene (Jeremy Davies), who’s been at the camp more than two years, and Duane (Steve Zahn), who’s been there more than one year. Quickly realizing there’s little chance their captors will decide to release them, Dieter decides to look for a way to escape. Not so fast, Gene and Duane say. Gene, more broken than any of the other prisoners, is certain he’ll be released any day now and doesn’t want to provoke the trigger-happy guards. Duane, on the other hand, would love to escape but sees the jungle as a nearly insurmountable obstacle — how would they traverse it, survive it, find water?

But Dieter is not one to give up, especially when the alternative is days spent eating nothing but bits of rice (or, worse, the bowl of maggots the guards give them when food runs low) and nights spent trying to sleep while shackled to the ground and chained to the other men.

Maybe it’s his broad Midwest-ish accent or a grin that continues even as the wearer gets gaunter and gaunter, but Dieter seems like an affectionate, enthusiastic guy who can’t be kept down and who it’d be almost impossible not to like. He wants to get back to his buddies, he says at one point, and begins to consider the prisoners at the camp part of that buddy group as well, especially Duane, with whom (as the trailers give away) Dieter eventually makes a harrowing escape.

It’s that personality, I suppose, that makes a rather grim movie about a depressing subject (especially considering current events) so sweet and engrossing. It’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit stuff, without all the icky Spielbergian sentimentality that kind of thing usually implies. Bale manages to keep his character human, despite all his potentially superhuman qualities, and realistic in his optimism (it makes sense that a man who had lived through war as a child would be able to decide and believe that harsh realities can be changed). His intense friendship with Zahn feels equally real. It’s the kind of genuine caring that you’d expect two men in such circumstances would have for each other without falling into the buddy movie clichés.

And, seriously, if this movie doesn’t get Zahn some grown-up actor attention… Zahn has long been the invisible trooper, turning in above-average performances in movies like That Thing You Do! and Out of Sight and even popcorn stuff like Sahara. But he’s talented, a stronger character actor than his boyish appearance would lead casting directors to believe. He gives Duane depth here and creates impressive chemistry with Bale. Won’t someone please give him a role with Oscar potential? B+

Rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture (not to mention the maggot-eating). Written and directed by Werner Herzog (based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, which Herzog told in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly), Rescue Dawn is two hours long and is distributed in limited release by MGM. At press time, it was playing at the AMC Loews at the Loop in Methuen, Mass.