Rescue Dawn is German director Werner Herzog’s first nondocumentary feature in five years. The movie is based on the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. citizen and Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in the mid-’60s and endured torture and starvation as a prisoner of the Pathet Lao, and then the North Vietnamese, before managing to escape. Herzog has told this story before. In 1997, he made a documentary for German TV, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, in which the actual Dieter Dengler narrated his story directly to the camera. In that film, Herzog began with Dengler, a hale-looking man in his fifties with an easygoing camera presence, talking about his childhood during World War II and how watching the U.S. planes soaring overhead had filled him with the yearning to fly himself. (He emigrated to the U.S. when he was 18, because the only way he could afford to take flying lessons was as a member of the military, and postwar Germany had no air force.) The awfulness of where the story was going sneaks up on the viewer, though there are ominous hints, such as a scene where Dengler shows the camera his well-stocked pantry and talks about how important it is to his emotional health to always know that there’s plenty of food on hand. Rescue Dawn is much more conventionally structured, and though it’s longer than Little Dieter Needs To Fly, it feels smaller. Much of the detail that made this story fascinating the first time is missing. But then, so is most of the juice.
As Dengler, Christian Bale is game but lightweight, and he speaks in what sounds like an imitation of a New York accent that he might have picked up from old Scorsese movies. (At times, he slips into the kind of hollow, mock-Method acting that young British performers sometimes do when they want to show how much they love American movie actors.) In the documentary, Dengler, who till the end of his life retained strong traces of his German accent, says that though he joined the U.S. military for apolitical reasons, he refused to sign the “confessions” that his Vietnamese captors shoved at him because they reminded him of the Nazi loyalty oaths that he was proud of his father for having refused to sign. Bale’s Dengler simply says that he won’t betray the United States because “they taught me to fly,” and his German identity isn’t a factor; it doesn’t even exist. That cuts out a big piece of the heart of his story. One can understand how Bale, an Englishman playing an “American,” might have needed someone to explain all this to him; what’s surprising is that Herzog didn’t do the explaining.
Bale doesn’t do as much for the movie as Steve Zahn, who plays Duane, the most visibly doomed of Dengler’s fellow prisoners. In his best-known roles, such as the mush-mouthed crook Glenn in Out Of Sight, Zahn has had the affable weirdness of a natural comedian, and in such films as Riding In Cars With Boys, he’s also shown that he knows how to mine his hapless vulnerability and his rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights quality for pathos without getting all sticky. Every night, while the men are trying to sleep chained up, Duane soils himself; his body is giving up on him, and all he can do is complain about it, quietly. His most frequent line is, “I can’t take it anymore,” and Zahn makes you believe it every time. Duane is his own ghost, a living reminder of someone who’s supposed to be dead but can’t remember to just lie down, and Zahn has an internal power that commands the viewer’s attention even when he’s rock still and mute.
His evil twin here is Jeremy Davies, who plays another American prisoner, and who’s always doing something, which would be fine if he’d just do it offscreen. You have to give Davies credit for being one fearsomely committed bad actor; he starved himself for this role, and he spends a lot of time shuffling around shirtless with his pants riding low, so you can ad