Rescue Dawn is the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American pilot shot down over Laos. Though a war film, there's little bravery or patriotism. There are few overtures to the resilience of the human soul. There are no revelations about the nature of conflict. Simply, Rescue Dawn studies the stupefying ignorance with which most American GIs entered Vietnam and the nearly impenetrable alienness that met them.
Rookie Navy pilot Dengler (Christian Bale) is a jovial, cocky guy who doesn't seem to grasp the full scope of his job. "I just want to fly," he says repeatedly. He isn't just flying, though. He's killing people and people are trying to kill him.
Once captured, he's confident that his American passport will buy him leverage or that smiling at frightened peasants will make them sympathetic to his plight. Neither is the case. Beyond a meeting with an English-speaking propaganda officer, Dengler is completely unable to understand his captors. Nor do they understand him.
For more than a year, this is Dengler's reality, and he doesn't get any reprieve. Writer-director Werner Herzog, wonderfully, gives us no reprieve either. Every step of the way, the camera trains on Dengler or hovers near his shoulder or provides his point of view. We see approximately what he sees; we miss what he misses. Dengler's captors chatter and scream and gesticulate, but subtitles never penetrate the rapid, fierce Laotian dialect. We hear only what Dengler and his fellow prisoners hear. As a result, we feel something of their paranoia, fear and frustration. Amazingly, this allows us to grasp similar emotions in the Viet Cong captors as well.
Indeed, the taut, often brutal, script and Herzog's direction allow for a deep empathy with all the characters except the unflappable Dengler himself. He's supposed to be a brash young flyboy, sure, but two uninterrupted hours of confidence and swagger leave him feeling underwritten or romanticized or both. Bale makes a scary weight shift, losing perhaps 40 pounds in the course of his captivity. It's unfortunate that Herzog's script doesn't allow for any shift in Dengler's psyche.
The other prisoners are written more richly. Steve Zahn gives a heretofore unthinkable performance as Duane, an Air Force pilot whose personality and grasp of reality completely erode in the time Dengler knows him.
Having spent a career making films about jungle-induced madness and having shot a 1997 documentary on Dengler himself, Herzog clearly understands the pressure and madness of captivity and isolation. If he had extended that to his protagonist -- making him a little less heroic and a little more human -- Rescue Dawn would be very nearly perfect. (Rated PG-13).