At the start of Werner Herzog’s remarkable Rescue Dawn, Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is a gung-ho U.S. Navy pilot. Cocksure and dogged, he’s loudly willing to take all manner of risks. It’s 1965, and he’s on board a ship with his fellows, watching instructional films on jungle survival. “Your best friend is your knife,” intones a generic narrator, as they watch a soldier grip one between his teeth. Dieter helps along the narration (“Chew it boy! Chew it!”), entertaining his buddies and demonstrating his fearlessness in one gonzo, big-smiled performance.
Dieter and company are preparing for their upcoming assignment, secret bombing raids over Laos. It’s 1965 and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War is just gearing up. The Laos campaign promises to be exciting and historic, in a clandestine sort of way. Tough as he is (“a goddamn daredevil”), this last part is a problem for Dieter when his plane is shot down: not only must he find a way to survive in the jungle, alone, but his comrades are unable to mount an aggressive search for him. This because they’re not allowed to acknowledge officially he was doing what he was doing.
In the jungle, Dieter is brave and resourceful; he hides his identification papers and his gun, sleeps under special, self-designed mosquito netting, and tries to signal passing planes with mirrors. Still, he can’t be prepared for his capture by Pathet Lao guerrillas. Their viciousness surprises him: when the guerrillas tie him spread-eagled to stakes in the ground, he whispers to the one nearest him, sounding almost embarrassed that he has to “go to the bathroom.” His captors ignore him, and Dieter is affronted: “Why doesn’t anybody listen around here?” he asks (apparently not imagining that they don’t speak English). Worse, they start to abuse him: they tie him to a tree and shoot past him, so unnerving Dieter that he actually yells at them: “Don’t ever, ever do that again!” The leader shoots again, so close to his head that Dieter’s temporarily deaf, a ringing on the soundtrack indicating his loss of bearings. When he’s dragged along behind a vehicle and hung upside down from a tree with a hornets’ nest tied to his neck, a series of point of view shots reveal his loss again.
Following much abuse, Dieter is delivered to a local military leader, who insists he sign a renunciation of US malfeasance. German-born Dieter refuses, pledging undying loyalty to the nation that took him in, following a terrifying childhood in the Black Forest during WWII. “I only wanted to fly,” he insists, “I love America, America gave me wings.” His dedication grants him passion and strength, but the film never lets you forget the paradox he lives, his illicit status and the fact that “America” cannot rescue him.
At last, Dieter’s dragged off to a prison camp, where he meets the men with whom he will spend the next long months, including Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies, revisiting his mesmerizing flitty-hands performance from Solaris), as well as local “offender” Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul). They instruct him concerning the peculiarities of their captors, including the brutal head guard they’ve nicknamed Little Hitler (Teerawat Mulvilai). They encourage Dieter to keep a low profile, as they do. When Dieter insists he will escape, the others, scrawny and weak from years of captivity, scoff, pointing to their severe surroundings, full of bugs, snakes, angry civilians and enemy fighters, and nonpotable water. “The jungle is the prison,” hisses Duane. “Don’t you get it?”
Stubborn Dieter, however, refuses to give in, even as his escape scheme foments distrust and disharmony among his fellow prisoners. Gene is made especially anxious by Dieter’s troublemaking, and their quarrels are often absurd. For a short while, the film turns into a part-antic, part-awful riff on Hogan’s Heroes, the prisoners devising makeshift spyglasses and picking their shackle locks when they’re left alone, then pretending to be restrained when the guards come back around. Dieter comes up with a specific plan for escape — assignments for each prisoner, to grab weapons and take out guards — and the men begin to hoard their rice, planning to carry it with them out into the jungle.
As they plan and argue, they also grow weaker by the day, starvation and illness taking their tolls. When the guards hand them bowls of maggots to eat in lieu of diminishing supplies, Duane gags, though he’s plainly starving to death. Dieter, by contrast, his face gaunt and ribs exposed (Bale looking nearly as wasted as he did for The Machinist) digs in, resolved to exhibit his strength and force back his own doubts. At this point, given their completely dire circumstances, Dieter’s performance seems equally sincere and false. As much as he believes in himself and hates his enemies (and so stays alive to exact a kind of vengeance), he’s also putting on a show for his comrades now, encouraging Duane not to give up, understanding himself as part of a group, not only independent and inviolate.
By turns exciting and disturbing, Rescue Dawn showcases Herzog’s signature interests in moral ambiguities and emotional adversities. Based on the same true story he documented in 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly (the real Dengler died in 2001), Rescue Dawn refers subtly but repeatedly to questionable US policy. It opens with an allusion to the Gulf of Tonkin, location of one of the most ignominious “incidents” in US history, and closes with an abstract affirmation of faith (“You gotta believe in something!”, asserts the admiral who sent Dieter forth with no guarantee of support or even recognition).
The time in between — the prison camp, Dieter and Duane’s struggles to survive in the jungle — is more visceral than historical or conceptual. The jungle is often beautiful, rendered in breathtaking wide shots, while close shots of bruised and emaciated bodies or the dark, tight space of the group cell, are surely disturbing. Beyond such resonant images, however, lie the complexities of imprisonment, intimacy, and illicitness. While the guards look implacable to the prisoners, Rescue Dawn remembers as well that the Vietnam War comprised any number of dreadful, dishonest activities, by all sides. That said, the movie’s individual portraits — especially the intimate, often strange relationship that develops between Dieter and Duane — are poignant and engrossing. If its subject matter is timely, its complications are ongoing.