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Case Number 12424

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Rescue Dawn

MGM // 2006 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // November 20th, 2007

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All Rise...

Judge Daniel MacDonald saves his rescuing for the late afternoon.

Editor's Note

Our review of Rescue Dawn (Blu-Ray), published December 13th, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

A true story of survival…declassified.

Opening Statement

Inimitable director Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) returns to the story of Lieutenant Dieter Dengler, whose tale of survival in a Laos POW camp Herzog explored in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, this time as a dramatic feature film.

Facts of the Case

Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale, Batman Begins), a German-born fighter pilot for the US Rangers, is on his first mission, a top secret bombing run prior to the official beginning of the Vietnam War, when he is shot down over Laos. Despite his resourcefulness, Dengler is quickly captured and finds himself in the company of several other POWs confined to a bamboo prison, subject to brutal treatment by captors who are sometimes as hungry as they are.

A man with an irrepressibly optimistic demeanor, Dengler immediately starts to plan his escape, despite what fellow captive Duane (Steve Zahn, Out of Sight) tells him: "The jungle is the real prison."

Dengler must convince his new companions that escape is both possible and necessary, overcoming the resistance of some—most virulently, that of Gene (Jeremy Davies, Saving Private Ryan), who is convinced they will be rescued where they are any day—and surviving the most unforgiving jungle environment imaginable.

The Evidence

Rescue Dawn is about the power of optimism, a true story featuring a man who literally and genuinely smiles in the face of adversity. Dieter Dengler is a character whom you might have trouble accepting as believable if you are unaware that he was a real person whose outlook apparently was just that sunny. Fortunately for audiences, Christian Bale is absolutely convincing in the lead role, bringing seemingly effortless truth to the part.

Dengler is a charming, complex, unassuming man whose company we enjoy, his reactions to the events around him consistently well considered yet surprising. Early in his capture, Dengler is subjected to forms of torture—which Herzog keeps tasteful and mercifully brief—in an effort to convince him to sign a letter condemning the United States. Yet his anger against the aggressors quickly subsides as Dengler looks for something productive to focus on. It's not that the man is impassionate or cold: just the opposite. But rather than waste his energy on indignation, he often chooses the quieter path. Constantly raging against those who have taken his freedom will not afford him escape, and escape is all that matters.

Still, the odds stacked against him are overwhelming, which is in contrast what makes Rescue Dawn such an inspirational story. When Dengler is introduced to the other prisoners, he quickly learns that some have been there for as long as two-and-a-half years, yet when he first gets to speak freely with them he immediately announces that he will be escaping that night. While his plan ultimately takes longer than that to develop and set into motion, Rescue Dawn never succumbs to despair, regardless of how trying and inhumane the circumstances are. This is a familiar story that finds its uniqueness in its overarching sense of positivity.

Herzog is famous (infamous?) for his staunch dedication to realism in his fictional works, and so it is no surprise that Rescue Dawn was actually shot in untamed jungles near Thailand, the actors tromping around barefoot among snakes and poisonous insects without even the luxury of a trailer to return to. The resulting authenticity is truly something to behold: I have never before seen onscreen men forging through such dense jungle, where machete swings barely make a dent in the foliage, winding their emaciated frames (the three leads lost between 33 and an astonishing 55 pounds each for the project) through the endless greenery. They seem utterly alone, the isolation palpable, and the story becomes that much more resonant.

The authenticity of the surroundings clearly informed the performances of Bale, Zahn, and Davies: all three are note-perfect. Above all, this is Bale's film, and he fully embodies Dengler, selling both his incongruous optimism and intense emotional outbursts with equal effectiveness. While he has faced misguided criticism in the past for being overly serious in his performances, Bale is able to project joy at the drop of a hat here, at some of the most unexpected times, and he deserves much of the credit for making Rescue Dawn the film that it is. Seeing Steve Zahn's name on a picture, one might assume he acts as comic relief, but instead we get a subdued, intense characterization with some of the movie's most emotional moments. Expect to see more of his sober side in coming work. And Davies brings his usual off-kilter perspective to the role of Gene, yet with an unexpected menace that nicely conflicts with Dengler's lack thereof.

Much of the surprisingly satisfying set of special features focuses on the trials of location filming, with some funny anecdotes from Bale and Zahn about how recklessly they were asked to disregard the dangers of the jungle, and how Herzog would often take bigger risks himself just to show that it would be okay. With comments from the cinematographer, producer, and plenty from Herzog himself, we get a solid overview of why and how this picture was made in the 45 minutes of featurettes, with little marketing fluff. Also included—despite Herzog's admitted aversion to them—are three deleted scenes, one developing Dieter's back story a bit more and two others that feature more brutal acts of violence which Herzog was uncomfortable including in the final film. Finally, a feature commentary with Herzog being interviewed by Norman Hill is jam packed with information, Hill's intelligent questions ensuring there are no lulls. This excellent commentary is well worth taking the time for.

Video quality is difficult to judge, as MGM provided a check disc for review purposes. For the most part, the vibrant blue sky, lush greenery, and red earth that compose the bulk of the surroundings are very well presented, the colors frequently popping off the screen. Compression artifacts and mosquito noise do show up occasionally, especially in darker scenes, but these will hopefully be a non-issue in the final release. The featurettes on the other hand, look absolutely horrible with frequent macroblocking and false contouring, although I suspect this too is only a problem on the check disc. Audio is subtle and front-centric, with the surrounds occasionally (but much less than you would expect) engaged for ambience. Dialogue is clear and natural sounding, with a dynamic range well equipped to handle both the whispers and the shouts of the actors.

Closing Statement

With Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog has created perhaps his most accessible feature film, a testament to the power of optimism and the human spirit. I encourage you to seek this one out.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 88
Acting: 98
Story: 90
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
• Drama
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• The Making of the True Story
• Deleted Scenes
• Commentary by Writer/Director Werner Herzog and Interviewer Norman Hill.


• IMDb

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