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Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Rescue Dawn

In the mid-90's acclaimed film-maker Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man, Fitzcarraldo) made Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a documentary telling the story of German-born US navy pilot Dieter Dengler and how he escaped from the Viet Cong after being shot down over Laos in the early days of the Vietnam War. Unusually, that version wasn't enough for Herzog, and in Rescue Dawn he tells Deiter's story once again, this time in an often powerful yet never fully satisfying recreation. The problem isn't with the casting: Christian Bale plays Deiter and gives a gritty, intensely physical performance in a role that for the most part requires him to be caged like an animal or trekking through thick jungle. The support cast is equally strong, especially Steve Zahn as a fellow American and escapee who's spirit has been all but crushed by captivity. And the story itself ticks all the right boxes, especially in the long months in the POW camp as Dieter slowly scrapes together the pieces that will first give the prisoners their dignity back, and then give them the means to break free. But in the jungle sequences, where the film really should have its strongest emotional impact, things don't feel quite right. There's no denying that these scenes are well handled, and the aimless and increasingly desperate nature of the escapee's wanderings in a land where both nature and the population are out to finish them off is convincing. Still, Herzog feels like he's either holding back (Rescue Dawn is a rare effort on his part to work within the traditional movie industry) or lost his way: for a director who's made his career with fiercely powerful and unflinching looks at the relationship between man and nature, too often this feels like standard (but well-made) Hollywood fare. It's a good film rather than a great one.

Anthony Morris

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