MGM // 2007 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // December 13th, 2007
A true story of survival...declassified.
Werner Herzog's films have been known to depict man's grittiness and survival in the elements, but he also manages to effectively capture stories about some incredible lives in documentaries that he manages to shoot from time to time. Rescue Dawn manages to function as a hybrid of both of those concepts, featuring names that you might have heard before. So how does it do on Blu-ray?
I'm not entirely sure what it is that inspired Werner Herzog the retell the story of Naval Pilot Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn. It had been told quite effectively in Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Upon further review regarding Dieter's story, Herzog says on the film's official site that "Dieter Dengler embodied everything I love about America: courage, perseverance, optimism, self-reliance, frontier spirit, loyalty and joy of life. He was the quintessential immigrant into America -- a young man who arrived with a great dream and came to represent the best of the American spirit."
For those unfamiliar with the basic outlines of the documentary and the man, Dengler (Christian Bale, Batman Begins) was an immigrant who had a boyhood dream of wanting to be a fighter pilot, and he graduated school in Germany and came to America with only thirty cents and the desire to fly. On his first flight in the Vietnam War, conducted in parts of Laos, he is shot down and captured. After some tortuous sequences, he is sent to a POW camp, where he meets Gene (Jeremy Davies, Saving Private Ryan) and Duane (Steve Zahn, Out of Sight). Both have been in camp for at least a year, bearing in mind that the conflict still hadn't escalated when Dengler had been shot down. While Gene is convinced that there is progress being made towards a release, Duane is more resigned to not being able to leave the camp. Within a short period of time, Dieter manages to craft a lockpicking device out of a nail, so as to give the boys some freedom in the evenings, as they were handcuffed together, their feet held by wooden blocks. Dieter helps plan an escape for the men from the prison and into the Laotian jungle to try and find friendly forces.
Allow me to jump ahead for a second. For those who are familiar with the story from the documentary, you might be surprised to see the dark nature of the interactions of those within the camp. Dengler himself told Herzog that these men were almost willing to kill, as tensions frequently ran high. It is the major difference between the documentary and the film, which in the beginning, does state that it's "inspired" by the events in Dengler's life. Also, the previous escape attempts that Dengler designed are ignored, rather, combining those events into one larger attempt was the more logical decision to make. Past those differences, everything remains pretty true to the events.
Many things strike me about this movie, the first being that Batman is very daring in the nature of his acting choices. In between The Machinist and his anorexic frame, his bulking up for Batman Begins and to lose it again for Rescue Dawn, he is consumed into a role and devotes himself to it. He plays a man who has no quarrel with the Vietnamese, he is simply devoted to the country that gave him a chance at his dream. And coming from Hitler's Germany, he knows what oppression is, and says so when offered the chance to admit to his "war crimes" as a propaganda ploy. And if you think he doesn't do any heavy lifting, think again. His feet are tied to one end of a rope, the other end securing to a running water buffalo, whereupon Bale is dragged through the dirt while villagers kick and throw things at him. He has an anthill tied to his upper torso, and is dunked in a claustrophobic tank that fills to the neck. He's doing all the work for this role, and it gives it much more believability than a lot of roles out there, and I haven't listed everything he did. However in this film, Zahn's performance is clearly the best. He plays someone who people know very little about, and does it with staggering surrender. When he starts to show signs of hope, it's touching and heartbreaking at once. His personal transformation and performance is worthy of Oscar recognition, anything less would be criminal. He, Bale and especially Davies have lost an extraordinary amount of weight for their roles, it is staggering to see how skeletal they are in the film.
Is it "just another war film"? It's a film set in Vietnam, for sure, but those who have asked if it's pro or anti war are missing the point. Above all else, it's about surviving extreme circumstances. Several scenes show Bale cutting through the jungle with a machete, with Herzog (or his longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger) just over his shoulder. The brush and vines are that strong and that thick, and if it helps show just how hard Dengler had to work to get back to freedom, then its time well spent. The film is shot in 1.85:1, a surprising change of pace considering most war films are shot in 2:35:1, but it's another way of conveying the constrictive nature of...nature.
Speaking of the 1.85:1 widescreen, it's presented with the AVC MPEG-4 encode and looks such a way so that you are involved in the action without looking at the background in a shot or two. Detail is quite clear and sharp over most of the picture. The DTS HD master audio 5.1 lossless track draws you in and envelops you without being overpowering. There's some low end subwoofer use during the initial raid where Dieter is shot down, but past that, dialogue is well focused in the center channel and is crisp and clear.
The extras are the same as the standard definition disc for the most part, with a couple of exceptions exclusive to Blu-ray. A subtitled trivia track entitled "Mission Secrets" which can be played over the film doesn't contribute too much to the film experience, aside from some more historical context. But there's an interactive Vietnam War Memorial on the disc, where you can access the panels of the monument and read some stories or letters to the fallen, so that's kind of cool. The commentary with Herzog and author Norman Hill is a minor letdown of sorts, Herzog explains what was factual and dramatized, along with what was in the documentary. Herzog sounds a little bit restrained in the commentary, and probably could have benefited without Hill joining. The making of featurette is composed of smaller pieces, but play them together and it lasts almost an hour. The cast discusses their roles and the trials and tribulations of filming in the Thai jungle. There's a lot of on-set footage and the cast discuss their preparations to get so emaciated, one cast member was so thin because he'd just been discharged from the hospital due to renal failure. Now THAT'S dedication. The lack of visual effects is mentioned and various members of the crew get interview time as well. It's a pretty good piece. "Preparing for Survival" includes a couple of former POWs who recall their time being shot down and recalling Dengler's specific story, and seven deleted scenes lasting about ten minutes are next. Nothing much new here to speak of, though a couple of more complete sequences on Dengler's capture and the "wedding ring" scene too, along with some more creative torture of Bale. A stills gallery and the film's trailer are it.
From a navigation standpoint, some of the material on the disc is somewhat clunky. The yellow banner has light green/brown highlights on your selections, which makes it tough to see what you've picked. Hopefully someone will rethink a color scheme like that down the road on subsequent releases.
A quick sidebar on Dengler. The man truly led a full life, with many close-calls and near-death experiences. He says in the documentary that "death did not want him," and closer examination shows just how much that was true. When he was found, he lost a third of his weight and was less than 100 pounds; when found and examined on the helicopter, he had a half-eaten snake in his pocket that scared the man who found it so much he almost fell out of the chopper (scenes that are gratefully re-enacted in the film). After his military career he remained a test pilot, surviving four more plane crashes. He had to abandon ship in rough seas when helming a boat. He died from ALS complications in 2001 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery (where most of this biographical information was found).
Not guilty in this or any other life.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Writer/Director Werner Herzog and Interviewer Norman Hill
* The Making of the True Story
* Deleted Scenes
* Trivia Track
* Interactive Look at the Vietnam War Memorial
* Official Site
* Official Gibraltar Films Site
* Arlington Cemetary Page on Dieter Dengler
* Original Verdict Review