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Rescue Dawn

Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
Spoiler
Spoiler!
The last time a European director came down so in favour of American values, Dutchman Paul Verhoeven unleashed Showgirls onto an unsuspecting world.

While watching Rescue Dawn, you keep waiting for the normally-wily Werner Herzog to use his boys-own adventure movie to say something cutting and critical of the US establishment. With the anarchic bloodshed in Iraq far from America's control, a revenge/redemption fantasy set in another unpopular foreign occupation seems almost in poor taste.

But the German Herzog isn't the America-skewering Dane Lars von Trier, and his intent seems all there on the screen with little subtext about Iraq, Vietnam or US foreign policy.

Rescue Dawn is based on the true story of the rescue of US navy pilot Dieter Dengler after being shot down in Vietnam, escaping from captivity and wandering the jungle for months afterwards. Despite racking up one great role after another, Christian Bale looks less than comfortable as the idealistic American flyboy.

When his squad launches in the Gulf of Tonkin to carry out the first classified sorties over Laos in 1965, Dengler is shot down in North Vietnam. On the run through hostile jungle, it isn't long before local forces find him, and after he refuses to sign a statement condemning the US for their actions – one he's assured will secure his safe release – he's carted off to a brutal jungle prison camp.

The second act plays like a docu-drama update of The Great Escape, Dengler and his emaciated co-captives meticulously planning their daring escape, and we're treated to some grisly and disturbing images of the cruelty meted out in the camp by the uncivilised guards and conditions before the breakout.

When Dengler gets away with jittery cellmate Duane (Zahn) they plunge into the unforgiving jungle to try and reach the safe border of Thailand, unaware that fates as terrifying as brutal soldiers await them.

Herzog achieves a taut, urgent tone by wielding the camera not simply like it's a war-zone documentary but through a warped, almost fish-eye lens that brings every surrounding into frighteningly close relief, the desperation there in every sweep of the camera over the choked green landscape. As Duane says early on, it's the jungle that's the prison.

But despite several genuine scenes of Duane and Dieter's waning strength and resolve and the realisation they might go mad or die out here, Rescue Dawn could have been a flag-waving Michael Bay movie without the pyrotechnics budget.

Herzog could have riffed on Oliver Stone's Vietnam-era loss of innocence tale Born on the Fourth of July, where the idealistic hero learns that the army is prepared to leave him behind, his country isn't grateful for what he did and the killing wasn't worth the price to his soul.

Instead, rescue Dawn is a protracted chase movie that does indeed carry dramatic quality but ends with naive faith restored, the hero rescued and welcomed back into the bosom of the army that loves him.

Until the last corny frozen frame depicting the hero's buddies holding him aloft, you just keep expecting the film to have something more to say.

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