TIFF: “Rescue Dawn”

Perhaps it’s shocking, but this is the first Werner Herzog film that I’ve seen. Ever. Based on the acclaim and the status that Herzog has, though, Rescue Dawn seems like a bad first introduction. It is a good film — by no means is it bad — but most of the reviews that I’ve seen say that it is a poor Herzog film. Of course, I don’t know that canon so I can only look at it as its own movie.

It tells the true story of an American pilot shot down in Laos before the Vietnam War. A story that Herzog previously told in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. This is the fictionalized version of that.

Rescue Dawn is essentially split into three sections: the crash, escape and capture; the prison camp; the prison camp escape. The middle section is the weakest as it’s drawn out for far too long. I can understand why, but as a contrast to the jungle escapes it just feels dull. Those scenes, when the thick (Thai) Jungle is a character of its own, are by far the better parts. There’s more tension. There’s more to look at. They are better paced. And they seem to suit Christian Bale best.

Bale‘s performance can be described as being very Christian Bale-like, and when he’s alone in the jungle it works well. When he’s in the camp, though, he’s second fiddle to Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, whose portrayals of long-time (well, longer than Bale) prisoners are tremendous. Steve Zahn is especially good. In their presence, Bale doesn’t feel as convincing.

The story is about how Dieter, Bale’s character, survived through the whole ordeal, but by the end of it I was far more interested in the fates of Zahn’s and Davies’ characters. In this sense, the main focus of the movie fails somewhat.

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