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Rescue Dawn’ is a raw story of human capability

Michelle Fordice | Thursday, November 8, 2007

For being a film about war, there is very little battle in “Rescue Dawn.” There is also very little rah-rah patriotism. But there is fierce loyalty to country and self as the characters fight to survive and let the next day be a free one. Directed by Werner Herzog, “Rescue Dawn” captivates the audience with its story about the ways humanity reacts to imprisonment. “Rescue Dawn” is based on U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s experience as a prisoner of war in Laos in 1966, before the U.S. was even recognizing its military operations in the area. Dengler was a German immigrant to the U.S. whose desire to fly originated from the most unlikely of places: He was fired upon by Allied fighters while a child in the Black Forest region of Germany.Decades later, after he was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, tortured and interrogated, Dengler was brought to a prison camp where he met several other captives. Instead of waiting for rescue, Dengler encouraged his fellow captives to help him stage an escape. But for all their planning, only Dengler and his friend Lt. Duane Martin made it out of the camp. Martin was killed in an ambush, so only Dengler was rescued. Herzog developed the more fictional take of the story, “Rescue Dawn,” from his own documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” which filmed Dengler himself telling the story. While it may be the “fictional” version, “Rescue Dawn” is as raw and real as can be. As with the majority of his films, Herzog does not hesitate to fling his cast and crew into the most remote locations. The jungle of Vietnam and Laos is its own character, a prison that is both suffocating and stunning. And the film is not an adventure story. There are no battles. No one wins. Few even survive. Instead, it is a vivid depiction of character. Human dignity and depravity tear at each other throughout the tale. The characters, whether they are prisoners or guards, are all faulty and scared. Even Dengler, for all his heroism, is not perfect, but just as demanding and arrogant as he is cunning and inspiring. The cast of “Rescue Dawn” is astounding. Christian Bale is quickly becoming one of the greatest actors of his generation and he does not fail to deliver with his performance of Dengler, wrapping the man’s confidence and will to survive into every moment. Steve Zahn surprises the audience by breaking out of his usually comedic roles to portray the heartbreaking Martin, beautifully evolving the character from a weak and somewhat ashamed prisoner into a man that, while still broken, is touched with hope. Jeremy Davies’ presentation of the hopeless Gene, forever shying away and hoping for someone to come and rescue him, simultaneously elicits feelings of sympathy and condemnation in his audience. Like every war film before it, “Rescue Dawn” will be evaluated on the statement it makes on the subject it covers. The conversation it has with each audience member will differ, but the loudest shout to emerge from the character-driven film concerns the kind of people a country hopes to have when it faces the inhumanities that every conflict brings. Even though Dengler says “No, I never wanted to go to war. I just wanted to fly,” he continues to believe that America gave him his wings. Even though he faces insurmountable obstacles that other people decided to let stand and imprison them, he strives on, if for no reason but to survive on his own terms. “Rescue Dawn” teaches us about pushing on. “Rescue Dawn” will show in the DPAC’s Browning Cinema today at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Student tickets are $3, and tickets for faculty and staff are $5.