'Rescue Dawn': Back to the Jungle, With Stars All Things Considered film critic Bob Mondello reviews a Vietnam War film from Werner Herzog. Herzog had told this same story before, in a documentary. This time he cast Christian Bale as captured U.S. fighter pilot Dieter Dengler.


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'Rescue Dawn': Back to the Jungle, With Stars

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Ten years ago, filmmaker Werner Herzog made a documentary about American navy pilot Dieter Dengler who was shot down during the Vietnam War. The documentary was called "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Herzog has returned to Dengler's story and this time, he's retelling it with actors. The new film is called "Rescue Dawn." And Bob Mondello has this review.

BOB MONDELLO: It was supposed to be a routine bombing mission.

(Soundbite of airplane motor)

Unidentified Male: Gentlemen, welcome to North Vietnam.

MONDELLO: But it becomes a lot less routine when the squadron crosses over into Laos.

(Soundbite of airplane crashing)

MONDELLO: Dieter Dengler's plane is brought down by antiaircraft fire and, though he survives the crash unhurt, he's captured by enemy soldiers who tried to get him to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. This is near the very beginning of the American buildup, which maybe why Dieter sounds as if he is still fighting World War II.

(Soundbite of movie "Rescue Dawn")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE (Actor): (As Dieter Dengler) I love America. America gave me wings. I will not sign it. Absolutely not. No way.

MONDELLO: But the world is shifting. Dieter has his face tied to a huge nest of insects, gets dragged behind oxen and has very nearly drowned and when he remains unbowed, he's thrown into a jungle prison camp where two other American soldiers have clearly been held for sometime. They're emaciated, speak only in whispers, and after many months in the camp, think Dieter's dreams of escape are just dreams.

(Soundbite of movie "Rescue Dawn")

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Without water, you won't survive more than two days out there. Without water, your tracks will be visible for even more. The jungle is the prison, don't you get it? When does the rainy season start?

Mr. STEVE ZAHN (Actor): (As Duane) Five months, can be six.

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Oh, I can't wait that long.

MONDELLO: Things don't move quickly. Everyone in the camp, guards included, is starving on a diet of rice when they can find it, and worms and grubs when they can't. Dieter figures if they don't move fast, none of them will have strength for a cross-jungle escape. Then one of the Laotian prisoners hears the guards talking and their situation gets even more urgent.

(Soundbite of movie "Rescue Dawn")

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Ever since the bombings the entire province cannot grow rice.

Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) I didn't think it could get any worse.

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) No. It's much worse than that. They plan to march us out in the jungle and kill us, and make it look it as if we're trying to escape.

Mr. ZAHN: (As Duane) Okay, so?

Mr. BALE: (As Dieter Dengler) Then, it has to be tomorrow?

MONDELLO: Director Werner Herzog has always specialized in stories about epic journeys and impossible dreams, which maybe why he's able to make all of this feel as persuasive as it's ever likely to feel in a movie with recognizable stars.

Christian Bale's Dieter comes across as practical and determined, which in these circumstances registers as heroic. And as his fellow prisoners, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, cower so effectively that you're soon seeing their guards through their eyes.

For a director whose films usually traffic in breathtakingly offbeat imagery and what sometimes termed ecstatic truth, "Rescue Dawn" is startlingly straightforward. Any connections an audience wants to make two other wars and other prison camps, it'll have to make on its own.

And early on, Herzog seems to be doing almost too good a job of conveying the tiresomeness of prison life. But as the film accelerates in its last half-hour, only art house purists are going to complain that their favorite director has gone Hollywood. "Rescue Dawn" may not feel much like a Herzog movie, but it's a gripping, real-life thriller.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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