'Rescue Dawn'

A Welsh childhood never stood in the way of Richard Burton inhabiting a wide range of American roles, nor has it had any inhibiting impact on the very American trajectory of Christian Bale's career. This, despite his having made a spectacular film debut in Steven Spielberg's masterwork "Empire of the Sun," playing the most English of English boys imaginable.

Bale's character in that film, Jim Graham, is a spiritual cousin to Dieter Dengler, the German-emigre pilot he plays in Werner Herzog's "Rescue Dawn." As boys living through World War II, they both become obsessed with a determination to fly. And, when thrown into dire circumstances, they each demonstrate the cunning and seat-of-the-pants wits that define a survivor.

Dengler's aerial epiphany happened when an American pilot swooped so close to his childhood home in the Black Forest that he could, as he would later claim, look him in the eye. The memory of that moment rises to the surface as an adult Dengler, living a nightmare version of his dream as a U.S. Navy pilot, finds himself trapped with six other prisoners of war in a remote Viet Cong compound.

Perhaps you know his story from the 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," in which the real Dengler (then a Northern California businessman in his 50s) recounted his capture and escape during the Vietnam War for Herzog's voracious camera. If you haven't seen that film, you might find the harrowing turns of "Rescue Dawn" too insistently movie-like to swallow. If you know the original, then you may receive this gripping and faithful dramatization as a kind of cinematic experiment in the relative merits of the spoken word vs. the illustrated.

Bale is a portrait of steak-fed heartiness and jocular German-American high spirits as Dengler sets out on his first Vietnam mission, prepped by a military survival training film that he and his buddies besmirch with derisive laughter. After Dengler's plane is abruptly shot down on a mission to Laos, he is captured and shuttled between villages, where he is subjected to a menu of tortures.

Eventually he is thrown in a wood-hut pen with six other POWs, whose broken spirit is in contrast with Dengler's never-say-die positivity. It is not long before he enlists his new buddy Duane (a revelatory Steve Zahn) in hatching a plot to escape, mining tricks he acquired as a tool-and-die worker in Germany. Antagonism to the plan comes in the defeated and emaciated form of Gene (Jeremy Davies).

Herzog had apparently felt compelled to revisit this material ever since finishing "Little Dieter," when Dengler conceded he sanitized his opinions regarding his fellow prisoners. In "Rescue Dawn," the director gives us a palpable sense of the frictions that can spring up when one is shackled nightly to six other men amid torrid tropical heat, nourished solely by fantasy games of a well-stocked refrigerator and a deprivation diet of rice and meatworms.

As in "Grizzly Man," in which he admirably sidestepped the exploitative potential of his subject's demise, Herzog resists sensationalizing the grim reality of the POWs' day-to-day. He works up stomach-clenching tension without resorting to sadism by camera, for which we can be grateful. At the same time, veterans of "Little Dieter" may long for the suggestive power of Dengler's descriptions, which haunted the imagination as only a good, graphically detailed campfire tale can.

That Bale emerges amid such a marathon of horrors with such a bold and full-blooded performance is a testament to his resourcefulness. "Rescue Dawn" offers charismatic reaffirmation of the day that Spielberg plucked him from a pool of 4,000 kids, firm in his conviction that little Christian needed to act.

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