Subdued heroism in Herzog's 'Rescue Dawn'

Christian Bale and Steve Zahn shine in "Rescue Dawn"

Rescue Dawn (2006)
Directed by Werner Herzog
Written by Werner Herzog
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn & Jeremy Davies
PG-13, 126 min.

**** out of *****

German directing Werner Herzog, best known for his “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” dips his toes into American filmmaking with his most recent production, but don’t assume that the film panders to the mainstream – this is Herzog at his very best, with a slew of strong American talent at his disposal. The result is a truly poignant movie called “Rescue Dawn.”

“Rescue Dawn” is the gripping true story of Lieutenant Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an American fighter pilot shot down over Laos on the eve of war in Vietnam. He is soon captured and roughly transported to a Vietcong internment camp, where he meets fellow American captives Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). Over the course of the next few months, the ever-vigilant and optimistic Dieter devises an elaborate escape plan, which the POWs will set in motion as the rainy season sets in.

The film is split almost cleanly down its middle: the first half consisting almost entirely of scenes set in the small internment camp, while the second hour focuses on the flight of Dieter and Duane. With this, we also receive two very different tones out of each, one of a poignant character study, and another as a classic escape film. The two halves mesh well, however, and together deliver a truly well-crafted piece of cinema.

The real shining factor of “Rescue Dawn” lies in the powerful yet nuanced performances of Bale, Zahn and Davies. Bale is consistent in his quality, each of his films a testament to his talent. Here, Zahn delivers the performance of his career as the glassy-eyed Duane. And the rarely seen but ever enjoyable Davies manages a sort of subdued insanity, brought about by Gene’s more than two years confined to the camp.

These solidly convincing performances, when paired with Herzog’s masterful pacing and beautiful camerawork, make for a great film. At once both touching and tensely entertaining, “Rescue Dawn” is subdued storytelling at its very finest, presenting a harrowing tale of bravery and perseverance without the typical grating grandiose of more “American” war films.

In a summer of crude and loud blockbusters, “Rescue Dawn” is a welcome bit of beautiful quiet, a definite must-see.


  1. Personally, I love the historical era of Vietnam, especially since much of it pertains to our situation with Iraq today. This being said, I was excited to see this movie, yet I was afraid it was just another Bale action film (granted, I love Bale, but at time he's just Mr. Macho to me). However, your review makes me think otherwise... perhaps I will go see it! :D

    (I like this. You're like my personal movie critic.)

    And I'm glad you say Zahn is good. I've always liked him, but all my friends can't get his 'Sahara' performance out of their heads.... which, granted, I thought was hilarious, but he's more then the dorky sidekick, y'know?

  2. Yeah, this is definitely not a typical action film. And this is probably the performance of Zahn's career. He was terrific.

    Oh, and, for the record, I liked him in "Sahara" as well.

  3. I liked that the film didn't delve too deeply into judgement or political commentary. With a foreign director and the political climate of the day and the subject matter at hand it would have been all to easy.

    The political judgement was subtle; Bale played a man who as a young German boy bore witness to the bombing of smaller towns harboring women, children and peaceful men - not Nazis. He said the killings were senseless. It was easy to draw the parallel between WWII and what he was experiencing in Vietnam. Yet Dieter was a man with great love for his country.
    In other words, this movie didn't go for what was easy, it didn't pass judgement, and it served first and foremost as a look into the experiences of Dieter Dengler.

    I loved it. Great review

  4. I think what impressed me the most was to see Steve Zahn branch out. I know he's done work similar to this before, but I'd really only seen him in his mainstream stuff, so it was good to see his 'serious' side.


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