Review: Rescue Dawn (2006)


Herzog’s first American film, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone on the crew tried to kill him!

Written By: Werner Herzog
Directed By: Werner Herzog

This is the part where I warn you not to read this review if you don’t want the end spoiled. I am going to begin by discussing the ending of Rescue Dawn in particular and the main complaint I have heard levied against the end. If you haven’t seen Rescue Dawn and don’t want to be spoiled then strop reading right now.

The ending of Rescue Dawn is unbelievable and implausible, even if it did actually happen that way as I have been led to believe. At first I was upset at the ending, wondering why a great movie had been marred by an ending that didn’t fit. The more I thought about it the more I came to the conclusion that the ending Werner Herzog provides is the ending Rescue Dawn needs. It doesn’t fit with the gritty and fatally realistic tone of the rest of the movie, but it does fit with the way Dieter looks at life and that is all that matters. Dieter’s madcap escape from the CIA agents validates the upbeat character of Dieter. Without that ending I don’t know if I would have walked away from Rescue Dawn as fulfilled as I did.

The case can be made for all kinds of subtext in Rescue Dawn, it wouldn’t be a Herzog film if it wasn’t full of subtext. However I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about man versus nature, man versus himself, the politics of the Vietnam war, and so on and so forth. I knew that many interpretations were present, but as I watched Rescue Dawn I remained entrenched on the surface story being presented to me. For me Rescue Dawn was about Dieter Dengler’s time spent in Laos and the eternal hope he carried with him throughout that time.

I found that hope and Dengler’s somewhat odd nature to be the framing device Herzog opted to use for the movie. Rescue Dawn doesn’t follow traditional beats, it is bereft of the typical action or comedic moments, it’s even bereft of the typical dramatic moments. By framing the beats around Dieter’s odd personage Herzog finds comedy in moments where there appears to be none, avoids the action cliches and maintains a dramatic pulse from moment to moment.

In a way Rescue Dawn was like a beacon of hope for me, when I say this I am referring to Christian Bale. After a series of subpar performances in The Prestige, Batman Begins, Terminator Salvation and The Dark Knight I began to doubt his earlier work. Maybe he wasn’t as skilled of an actor as I had thought, maybe he burned through a few good roles and had nothing left to offer? Seeing Bale deliver a great performance during the same time he made the aforementioned films reinstated my faith in the man as an actor. I’m not referring to the weight loss either, it’s not a bad thing but making yourself look the role physically is not a major part of acting for me, I’m talking about the honest emotion he brings out of Dieter. I’m not the best when it comes to discussing acting, but I do know that Bale completely immersed himself in the role of Dieter and it shows.

Rescue Dawn is a beautiful film, yet another that falls into the category of ugliness made gorgeous, with Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn providing excellent supporting acting. It’s not a traditional war or prison escape movie, but Herzog is far from a traditional director. It is painful to watch at times, but it is realistic and gripping, playing out like a tome to one man’s survival. Do yourself a favor and check out Herzog’s first American production if you haven’t already done so, Rescue Dawn is worth it.




13 responses to “Review: Rescue Dawn (2006)

  1. Rescue Dawn is such an incredible triumph. The documentary that informed this, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, was one of Herzog’s finest works, possibly even his best doc (though that’s harder than picking his best fictive film), but he managed with this to go deep into the realm that even the real Dengler, who was about as open as a traumatized person can be, would not or could not discuss.

    What’s so great is that Herzog does not glamorize war. So much of the action is just off-screen, and when he does show something it’s with cold clarity that never inadvertently makes us think that this sort of thing is cool. I really hope this (and, from what I’ve heard, the hilarious madness of Bad Lieutenant) keeps him working in America for a long time to come.

  2. Good movie, only complaint is all the scenes that didn’t take place in Laos. The thing at the beginning where Bale is trying to ham it up with the crew during the slideshow and at the end when he gives that pretty lame victory speech? Eh. The rest was awesome though. Gotta love Eugene from Eugene.

  3. I liked Rescue Dawn, but it just fell a bit short for me to give it four stars. I can see why people knock Bale in the Batman movies (I think hes the perfect Bruce Wayne, and no the loud voice does not annoy me) but The Prestige? come on, he pretty much carries that movie. and its a good movie.

  4. Jake – I don’t think Herzog will be leaving America anytime soon. 🙂

    Aiden – I hear you on that scene, but all the same it worked for me.

    Ross – Sorry, I don’t like Chris Nolan as a director and The Prestige is my least favorite film of his, I couldn’t stand it.

  5. You and me against the world, Ross! I’m not a big fan of the Batman growl (though a teenagehood spent listening to the occasional death metal album really softened that aspect) but he was a superb Bruce Wayne.

    I can’t stand with you on The Prestige, however (though he’s by far the best part, well at least the best part that isn’t David Bowie). I felt that the whole film was built on the mystery (which, save for a few of the many twists, is readily apparent) and didn’t focus on the characters half as much as the other big magic movie of 06, The Illusionist.

  6. I think I went on record once as saying this film was meaningless and while that might be a bit too harsh I think the ending is the main reason why I said that. It just completely undercuts the rest of the film and gives it this very existential tacking at the end.

    Still, I feel like it’s a film I should revisit and maybe see if the ending works any better the second time around.

    I love me some Herzog after all.

  7. For Christ’s sake, can we stop discussing Christopher Nolan in Bill’s presence?!?

  8. Jake – I’m with you on The Illusionist being far better than The Prestige.

    James – I Can’t agree with your thoughts. I felt that at its core the film was always about hope, and the ending confirms that.

    Edgar – Ha, that’s alright Edgar, it’s all good. 🙂

  9. Jordan Richardson

    Christopher Nolan’s never made a better movie than Following. That’s where he proves he has some chops. And Insomnia was a pretty cool little thriller, actually.

    I haven’t seen Rescue Dawn, but it lurks there waiting to be watched as a key component to my coveted Herzog box set. Yes!


  10. The ending makes a lot of sense to me. Armies, militaries always want to discover new heroes to cherish, thereby creating new legends for future generations. The final scene is ridiculously upbeat and corny because, when compared to what Deiter had gone through, it is just that: conry and ridiculously upbeat.

    I think that’s how almost all countries treat the surviving members of their military campaigns. That’s not to argue that those who serve don’t deserve recognition, far from it. Only, if I were I experienced heavy combat duty, laid my life on the life for months at a time and saw the horrors of war first hand, I’d probably juts want to eat a steak or something when I got back home. Glorious ceremonies commemorating my efforts be damned. That’s just me however.

  11. Hmm, I typed that above comment quickly. Forgive the spelling and grammatical errors

  12. Jordan -I’m not a Nolan fan, in any way, that’s kind of a running theme with the people who know me. I haven’t seen a film of his yet that I thought was decent.

    Edgar – I never forgive, or forget 😦

  13. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Directing Props, Pt. 2! | Bill's Movie Emporium

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