“Rescue Dawn” is the product of Werner Herzog’s decade-long campaign to chronicle Dieter Dengler’s remarkable, death-defying experiences as a Navy pilot. Inspired, of course, by a true story, it is tense, riveting and tastefully restrained — “Rambo” without the jingoistic edge or bombastic excesses.
A German-born pilot who joins the Navy just in time for the Vietnam War, Dengler (Christian Bale) wears his appropriated American pride on his tattered, bloody sleeve — but “Rescue Dawn” isn’t about the pride of a nation; it’s about the fortitude of a single man.
Dengler, shot down during his first mission over the Laotian jungle, is soon captured by guerrilla forces and given a choice — denounce American imperialism or be subjected to unthinkable torture. For him, the choice is simple: Denying his adoptive homeland would be a repudiation of the country that gave him his wings. Dengler, in many ways a grown boy whose lifelong dream was to become a pilot, rejects the idea without a second’s hesitation.
It’s a decision Dengler might have lived to regret, had he not been fearless and endlessly resourceful, an all-American hero waiting for his opportunity to shine. He is beaten, bound and dragged through the jungle, and hanged from his ankles with an ant’s nest tethered to his forehead. But his spirit is never broken. Arriving at a P.O.W. camp where he is thrown in with gentle, haunted Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies, of “Saving Private Ryan”), an emaciated loner given to erratic mood swings, he remains buoyed by the one thing his cellmates don’t have — hope.
Herzog’s tale of feel-good heroism doesn’t offer many surprises, but then the outcome of “Rescue Dawn” is never in doubt. Had Dengler not broken out of his jungle prison and fought his way to freedom, it’s unlikely that his story would have inspired not one but two Herzog films, the first being the 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Here, the German filmmaker, so often fascinated by offbeat subjects and people caught in the grip of impossible, ill-fated dreams, has crafted an uncharacteristically conventional adventure, elevated by the performances of his three leads.
Yes, there are times when Dengler — boyish, cocksure and relentlessly optimistic — recalls Maverick, the cartoonish hero of “Top Gun” who tackles every challenge with calculated cool and a winning smile. But Bale keeps him grounded enough to build a convincingly touching bond with Zahn, whose wry deadpan sometimes provides a light touch of comic relief but more often speaks to the soul-deadening realities of life in a prison camp. Davies, as Gene from Eugene, remains purposely impenetrable — he, too, has spent too long mired in squalor, but he refuses to imagine a life removed from it. He would rather accept his misery than dare to overcome it, rising from his torpor only on the eve of his execution.
Together, they are a formidable, albeit slightly dysfunctional team of fugitives, struggling against time and their own mortality to survive life in a jungle as unforgiving as their captors. There are plenty of moving images in “Rescue Dawn,” but perhaps none as poignant as the shot of Dengler and Duane, clinging to each other for warmth in the dead of night. It is an embrace born of necessity rather than passion, but their love for each other is no less real.
Rescue Dawn ***
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Zach Grenier, Pat Healy
Written and directed by Werner Herzog
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes