Friday, July 13, 2007

The tale of Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who miraculously escaped a Laotian POW camp, may sound like just another war story to some people.

To filmmaker Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man,” “Aguirre, The Wrath of God”), however, it’s the quintessential tale of survival against all odds. Of honor and friendship. Of the qualities that he admires most in Americans.

It formed the basis of his 1997 documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” and now, it’s been dramatically re-created and spiked with additional details in “Rescue Dawn.”

Christian Bale (last seen in “The Prestige”) stars as the proud protagonist, who’s barely on the aircraft carrier long enough to get his mosquito gear stitched up before he embarks on an aerial mission along the North Vietnam-Laos border.

After some dramatic footage of actual bombs torching the lush, green countryside (which Mr. Herzog obtained from the National Archives), Dieter’s plane crashes into the isolated jungles of Laos.

Eventually, he falls prey to a group of Pathet Lao soldiers who promise to free him if he’ll sign a statement decrying the American military, but he’s far too loyal to even consider that (a sentiment that Mr. Bale nails, down to his deliberately delivered speech). As expected, his refusal results in brutal torture and banishment to a dismal POW camp.

There, Dieter encounters a broken man Duane (Steve Zahn in a fine and rare dramatic performance), paranoid Gene (Jeremy Davies) and several other prisoners who are passively awaiting either rescue or death.

While the Grim Reaper breathes in his face in the form of harsh captors, dysentery and starvation, the ever-optimistic Dieter begins to devise an escape plan for the detainees and puts it in action one day when he can wait no longer.

Suddenly, he and Duane find themselves lost in the jungle, facing new perils (the man versus nature theme that often surfaces in Mr. Herzog’s films). Dieter remains hopeful that a U.S. chopper will soon swoop in and ferry them to safety, but has no idea how bleak the prospects are, given America’s refusal to acknowledge any military operations in Laos.

It’s a powerful, perilous journey that Mr. Herzog takes viewers on, and one that doesn’t bog itself down with too much historical or political context (and that essentially reduces the native Asians to the sum of their violent, gun-toting parts). Instead, it focuses on the dramatic personal strugggle at the story’s heart.

There are hard-to-swallow scenes: prisoners forced to eat worms, men sleeping in their own excrement, Dieter devouring a live snake when there literally is nothing else to consume.

But Mr. Herzog finds plenty of beauty here, too.

He presents it visually, in the form of carefully composed shots of verdant vistas, or actions like a child dangling a beetle on a string. He also presents it through dialogue, as in Duane’s grand daydream of a stocked refrigerator. Most importantly, his well-crafted film presents it thematically, through the poignant story of one man’s overwhelming will to survive. That is, indeed, a beautiful thing.

THREE STARS TITLE: “Rescue Dawn” RATING: PG-13 (for some scenes of intense war violence and torture) CREDITS: Written and directed by Werner Herzog. RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes WEB SITE: MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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