Rescue Dawn, from visionary documentarian Werner Herzog, is more than a prisoner-of-war and survival picture. Christian Bale, once a child actor of stature for Steven Spielberg in the WWII drama Empire of the Sun, is poised to the rigors of a demanding role not just physically like his astonishing work in The Machinist.
Here, Bale blossoms as Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. fighter pilot thrust into a simmering Vietnam in 1965. In Laos on his first raid he is shot down and captured, and corralled in a jungle-like prison.
The story by Herzog, from his stellar 1997 documentary, proves unsentimental and hardly sensationalized. It has the oddly upbeat Dieter persuading his fellow captives Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies) to intricately break out of this make-shift horror. Yet, the rainforest may not be much better than the dreadful camp with its bamboo skelton.
The perseverance of Dengler comes shining through as the viewer palpable becomes involved in his ordeal. The physical transformation is something that may really connect with those who've been imprisoned behind enemy lines. Suffice it to say, Dieter endures much more than a severe weight change.
The supporting cast, including a somewhat delirious Davies (some may see the likes of Charles Manson in his character), and an instinctive, hardly comic-relief typecast Zahn whose Duane doesn't chew the scenery. He realizes his tact has to change as he's personally past the point of no return. There are also personable touches from performers portraying the guards adding color to the proceedings.
If the pacing flags a bit in this war thriller, it still showcases humanity with indelible feeling by defying convention. Thus, when the story abruptly shifts, it grabs one, perhaps like an old war picture. What helps largely, besides a remarkable Bale, is the richly saturated lensing of shooting on location in Thailand as one becomes moved of the ordeal in the midst of such political power.