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Movie review: 'Rescue Dawn'

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2½ stars (out of four)

The dreamy prisoner-of-war account "Rescue Dawn" is the work of Werner Herzog, yet it is not the work of Werner Herzog. It is an impersonal personal film, a paradox attracting all sorts of other paradoxes.

The writer-director's first official American project, it is a wartime survival story made by someone who has no time for platitudes regarding heroism or the triumph of the human spirit, yet who must dutifully follow his own conflicted screenplay to the bitter end, an end that is the opposite of bitter, in fact, and more appropriate to something like "Top Gun."

A German-American named Dieter Dengler is the subject, as he was the subject of Herzog's sweetly eccentric 1997 television documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Born in Germany's Black Forest region, Dengler endured a miserable post-World War II existence relieved primarily by thoughts of becoming a pilot. Emigrating to America he became a Navy pilot and was sent on a mission over Laos in 1966, before there was an officially designated war in Laos.

Flying along the Vietnamese/Laotian border Dengler was shot down by Pathet Lao soldiers, captured and taken prisoner. In a makeshift camp he met two other American prisoners of war: helicopter pilot Lt. Duane Martin and a civilian Air America pilot, Eugene DeBruin. "Rescue Dawn" details aspects of Dengler's imprisonment and escape only glanced upon in the earlier documentary.

Herzog is too idiosyncratic an observer to hand mainstream American audiences anything resembling the usual Vietnam picture. (Technically this belongs to a smaller subgenre, the Laotian war picture.) Its tone is reflective, not combative, and it operates on a lulling rhythm, so that the jungles (the film was photographed in Thailand) become either mesmerizing or a narcotic, depending on your blood sugar.

Much of the first half glides along surfaces. Then Dieter, portrayed as a comically relentless optimist, breaks out and starts running with Duane, and the film starts getting somewhere as a film, somewhere both realistic and abstract. Against the massive rains and many enemies, the duo builds a raft and floats down a river they hope will lead to the Mekong and safety. Christian Bale and Steve Zahn play Dieter and Duane, and they're very good. Even in an emaciated state (Bale in particular lost a lot of weight for this assignment as he did for an earlier film, "The Machinist") the actors' eyes shine with the sort of inner-vision madness dear to Herzog's heart.

If you're going to see "Rescue Dawn" you owe it to yourself to see "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." If you're going to choose one of the two, my vote's with the documentary, which brings Dieter to life more fully. "Rescue Dawn" is Herzog's first English-language screenplay, and this is part of its problem: The hushed conversations between prisoners sound only fitfully idiomatic. Also--crucially--Herzog can't find a way to make his own big finish feel authentic, even if things did happen roughly this way. The late scenes belong to a lesser breed of Hollywood mythmaking, the kind we've seen before.


'Rescue Dawn'

Written and directed by Werner Herzog; photographed by Peter Zeitlinger; edited by Joe Bini; music by Klaus Badelt; produced by Steve Marlton, Elton Brand and Harry Knapp. An MGM release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:00. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of intense war violence and torture).

Dieter - Christian Bale

Duane - Steve Zahn

Gene - Jeremy Davies

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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