‘Rescue Dawn’ Review: “Empty What is Full”

Posted in Screening Room by - May 11, 2016

After having my first exposure to Werner Herzog’s style of directing, I’d had reached the conclusion that he was quite perplexing. The idea that this storyteller decided to show the audience a collection of images in an attempt to let them form their conclusions led me to believe he’d be quite the character in real life. What I did not expect, however, was the premise and execution of his 2007 Vietnam war drama, Rescue Dawn.

Based on the real-life tale of American Navy Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), Rescue Dawn is the story of one of only seven Viet Cong prisoners to have ever escaped a POW camp alive. Taken to a jungle prison after his plane crashes during a secret bombing in Laos, Dengler is imprisoned with several others who’ve been held captive for more than two years. Shocked at how long they’ve been prisoners, Dengler is determined to escape from the hellish jungle but sorely underestimates the conditions and lifestyle they’ve been forced to adopt.

You might be thinking this is a film of inspiration and overcoming obstacles; an almost Shawshank-story focused on the will of one man against all authority. Although it very much is focused on Dengler, there is no inspiration to be found from this film. Even though there are obstacles to overcome, there is much more to this movie than a simple tale of conquering the unconquerable. To say Herzog is a chameleon of directing would be a sore understatement. Once again, I haven’t had sufficient enough experience with his vast filmography to judge him wholly, but Rescue Dawn and my last week’s review of Where the Green Ants Dream could not be more different. In just about every regard, from the premise to the message, to the presentation, these films could have been made by completely different people, and I wouldn’t know the difference, I doubt many of you would either. The only thing they have in common, however, is that they’re both spectacular films. And although the latter is not a movie I’d recommend as a casual viewing or even one for the semi-casual cinema nerd, Rescue Dawn certainly is.

Herzog has, in the film, so masterfully presented the desperation, depravity, and loss of human dignity that comes with being made a prisoner. Not only are the cuffs around your wrists a focus, but the unbearable weight of being trapped in a landscape you’ve no calculable chance of escaping from. Early in the film, Dengler remarks to the other prisoners that a simple bamboo room will not keep him from escaping, the others point out that the chamber is not the prison, the jungle is.

One of the biggest obstacles for the U.S military in the war, the marshlands and tall grasses of the Vietnam jungle, are so incredibly and horrifyingly well conveyed. The smell of dirt and swamp, the musky odor of matted and muddied hair and the rapid buzzes, creaks and croaks of the jungle’s inhabitants. Time after time in their almost-fruitless escape, Dengler and his companions fight against vines and bushes, hacking away with a short and rusted machete, sweating under a hellish sun and rationing single grains of rice to survive enough to crawl a few meters a day. Such is the terror of this film, the idea that when nature itself is fighting against you, how can you hold any hope of beating it?

Had anyone but Herzog directed this movie, I doubt it would be nearly as good or as ambitious. Shot in the jungles of Thailand, the environment truly does the film immense favors in regards to atmosphere. Had it been shot in some other location not nearly as authentic, I believe the movie wouldn’t have been half as good but still breathtakingly compelling, due entirely to the fact that this is some of the greatest acting I have ever seen in cinema.

Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies are the definitions of raw and impassioned. Bale and Zahn are together for much of the film as they battle the elements, slowly following the river. The terror and realization that they may not make it in Zahn’s eyes as they go to sleep hungry once again is haunting. Davies is proud and broken, so void of hope that he’d rather wait for the fated end of the war to be rescued than escape on his own. Though it may seem selfish, his threats to expose the others’ plan of escape comes from a place of desperation and fear. A desperation and fear we come to intimately understand throughout the course of this movie.

How lucky I am to have indeed seen what Herzog can do when empowered with the dedication of a talented cast and an enchantingly paralyzing location. Herzog’s film on war is quite the opposite of its description, more than the war it is a movie of survival. More than bombs and napalm, it is of worms and dysentery. More than a message of patriotism it is a tale of hopelessness, fear, and death. More than something to be cheered and applauded for, it is ultimately a film about marvel, respect, and fear.

Final Verdict: Watch It

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When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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