Werner Herzog has made a career out of profiling men with impossible dreams who end up fighting against nature and society to make them a reality.
About halfway through Rescue Dawn, prisoner of war Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) tells a fellow captive a story from his childhood about why he wanted to become a pilot. Dengler, a German by birth who later immigrated to America, explains that he was living in the Black Forest during World War II as Allied planes were bombing his country. One day he and his brother were up in the attic of their house, watching a fighter plane firing on their town. The plane flew so close to their roof that he was able to look right into the eyes of the pilot, and "from that moment on, little Dieter, he needed to fly."
Dieter Dengler is a strange, atypical hero for a war movie, or any movie for that matter, a man who ignores any sense of a larger political struggle and instead sees everything in deeply personal terms. He is a Navy fighter pilot ordered to conduct a bombing mission over Laos in 1965, at a time when America's military involvement in Vietnam had not yet spiraled into all-out war.
Shot down by anti-aircraft fire and quickly captured by the North Vietnamese, Dengler is brought before a military officer who gives him a document to sign accusing the American army of brutality and imperialist aggression. The Vietnamese officer tells him that if he signs it, he'll be released. Dengler admits that he doesn't like war – he saw enough of it as a child – but refuses: "I love America. America gave me wings." His loyalty to his adopted country isn't based on anything as abstract as a belief in America's moral superiority. He's simply grateful for what the United States has given him and won't betray that trust he feels he's earned.
Dengler is the only one in his prison camp who never loses hope that he'll escape and live to see the outside world again. Admittedly the other prisoners, which include a handful of South Vietnamese rebels and two American Air Force officers, have good reason to be disillusioned since they've already spent years in captivity and wasted away to skeletal wrecks. The most paranoid among them, Eugene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), believes that an escape attempt is a mistake because the United States will end its military campaign any day now and the Vietnamese army will release them as a sign of thanks. The others don't seem to believe this, but nor do they think it's possible to escape since it would mean surviving on their own in the jungle.
But even as Dengler spends months in the prison developing his plan to free everyone, his confidence never falters. He seems almost miraculously untroubled by self-doubt or fear. He possesses a number of esoteric skills that make their escape possible, and just as crucially, he buoys everyone's spirits and tries his best to keep the peace among a group of men who have been thrown into a nightmarish situation together and often find themselves at each other's throats. He's more than a hero; with his weird cheerfulness and bottomless depths of courage (when a Viet Cong soldier points a rifle in his face and pulls the trigger, he doesn't even flinch before he hears a clicking sound and realizes that the chamber is empty) he's practically a messianic figure.
This performance is definitely a nice change of pace for Bale, who was becoming a bit stereotyped at playing eccentric loners with disturbing secrets, but more importantly, it's Dengler's larger-than-life personality which connects Rescue Dawn to the rest of director Werner Herzog's oeuvre. Herzog has made a career out of profiling men with impossible dreams who end up fighting against nature and society to make them a reality. Dengler's dream is to be free and to fly once again, but Herzog recognizes that any obsession, no matter how worthy, still has its undercurrents of ambiguity.
When Dengler is eventually rescued from the jungle and returns to his aircraft carrier, he's greeted by a huge crowd of soldiers who cheer him and lift him up off the ground as the music swells. Is the film ignoring that all of his fellow prisoners are dead or missing in order to provide a happy ending? Not at all – Herzog is simply commenting on the single-mindedness of Dengler's will to live. I'm not trying to suggest in any way that he's heartless for being proud at returning home. It's clear that none of those men would have come close to escaping without his help, and that when they went their separate ways after leaving the prison, Dengler did everything he could to take care of his only remaining traveling companion, Air Force officer Duane Martin (Steve Zahn, in a haunting, terrific performance).
And it occurs to the audience, although not to Dengler, that perhaps the Air Force is using his celebration as a PR stunt to boost morale in the military. They're highlighting one man's survival rather than the reality of the situation, which is that everyone else died. The disc jockey leading the cheers asks Dengler what allowed him to survive and he's clearly looking for some inspiring quote about patriotism or a belief in God. But Dengler only responds with some Zen advice: "When something is empty, fill it. When something is full, empty it. When you have an itch, scratch it." What fueled his self-confidence remains a mystery to both the Americans and the North Vietnamese. Little Dieter, he needed to go home and fly. Nothing else mattered.
The special features on the DVD include an audio commentary track with Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill, a four-part behind the scenes documentary, and a collection of deleted scenes. The commentary track is a bit subdued and at times it seems like Hill is simply going down a list of questions rather than paying attention to the flow of conversation, but it's still fascinating to hear the thoughts of a master director like Herzog. The documentary is also a revealing look at how hands-on Herzog is (at one point, we see him shirtless and wading through the rapids), and it deals with the inevitable question that any movie "based on a true story" raises: how much did Herzog change for the sake of telling a good story?
Most of the controversy surrounds the character of Eugene DeBruin. His family is claiming that Herzog distorted the facts in order to make him an antagonist to Dengler and build tension within the prison camp. Herzog admits that he's played fast and loose with the facts at times, but insists it was always in the service of his film. Maybe that's not the answer most people want to hear, but it's certainly the only truthful one for a filmmaker who isn't interested in mundane reality, but in dreams and obsessions.