From the opening credits of Rescue Dawn—a mesmerizing overture of haunting music and archival footage of napalm bombing—one can sense that this is not going to be a traditional war film. Anyone familiar with legendary writer/director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) will also know as much. But even as this film is being proclaimed as Herzog's "most mainstream" and "most accessible" film yet (which it probably is), there are still some serious layers of beauty and depth here that go beyond most any film you'll see this year.
In some ways, Rescue Dawn is less an action/adventure war film than it is a deeply complex character portrait of Dieter Dengler, the curious German-American pilot who was the first—and only—American POW to successfully escape from a Laotian prison camp during the Vietnam conflict. The film follows Dengler (Christian Bale) as he crashes his plane into the menacing, Vietcong-occupied jungles of Laos during a classified mission in 1966. He is soon captured by enemy troops, tortured, and held in captivity in a remote prison camp, where he joins several other American and Thai POWs. As the prisoners become aware of their captors' intentions to eventually kill them, they plan a desperate escape. The second half of the film is the harrowing account of Dengler and his cohorts as they flee the enemy on foot in search of rescue, facing the ruthless brutality of both nature and man along the way.
The reason Dawn feels more like a character study of Dengler than it does a white-knuckle adventure story (which it is) is likely due to Bale's remarkable performance. Sporting an accent that is as complex as his character (a German-born, American-bred Wally Cleaver of sorts), Bale resists pinning down Dengler's psyche. Instead, he plays Dengler as a man alternatively softspoken and manic, sensitive and primeval—somewhere between MacGyver and The Crocodile Hunter.
Herzog is obviously fascinated with Dengler. In 1997, he made the acclaimed Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the documentary take on Dengler's POW tale, and a line of narration from that film illuminates Herzog's peculiar interest in this character: "From the air, Vietnam didn't seem real at all," Herzog narrates. "For Dengler it was like a grid on a map. He had suddenly found himself not only a pilot, but a soldier caught up in a real war. But even though it was all very real, everything down there seemed to be so alien and so abstract. It all looked strange, like a distant barbaric dream."
Reality and surreality are Herzog trademarks; his non-traditional "documentary" style often mixes fact and fiction, real footage and dramatized setups. He loves using "found" footage of various things (nature, for example), and re-purposing it in ways that make it feel both familiar and frighteningly abstract. Herzog views nature, for example, as both beautiful and impenetrable in its complexity and foreignness. In 2005's hit documentary, Grizzly Man, for example, nature is a terrible, cruel force that nevertheless draws us in by its beauty. As Herzog narrates over Timothy Treadwell's "found footage" of bears in the gorgeous landscapes of Alaska: "I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature."