With his alliterative name and implausibly optimistic nature, Dieter Dengler is a 2-D screenwriter’s dream: strong through suffering, patriotic through pain, a real-life top gun. The details of his extraordinary true escape from a Viet Cong POW camp are also up for debate, with relatives of fellow prisoner Eugene DeBruin complaining that writer/director Werner Herzog portrays their loved one as a quasi-quisling who nearly scuppered their jungle dash, when they feel he was just as heroic as Dengler (see www.rescuedawnthetruth.com for their extensive list of grievances). Still, anyone familiar with Herzog’s 45-year output won’t be surprised by the ‘faction’ kerfuffle, with the maverick German always happy to re-forge reality in the name of a greater truth. And the truth here is Dengler’s survival: a triumph of human endurance, whichever way you slice it. The Kraut-born, Yank-naturalised flyer crash-lands during a secret bombing mission over Laos in 1965, as America’s nascent rumble in the jungle spills over the border from Vietnam. It’s his first mission and his test-school self-assurance is soon tried, as capture, torture and starvation ensue.
Here is the other truth of Rescue Dawn: Christian Bale is phenomenal. It’s a two-tiered achievement, the most obvious being his evident physical commitment. Dragged behind an ox, strapped upside down to an ant’s nest and nearly drowned, he takes one helluva beating. But beyond the De Niro-ish insanity, perhaps Bale’s greater feat is to make Dengler believable as a bloke. With off-kilter accent and manic manner, Dieter could be little more than annoying, but Bale imbues him with irresistible purity. In career terms this is the capper to his breakthrough role: the child POW of Empire Of The Sun. Just as Bale’s boy Ballard locked eyes with an Allied pilot in the signature scene from Spielberg’s underrated epic, so Dengler stood in awe of the bombers obliterating his German home and was inspired to fly. As his best friend Duane (Steve Zahn) says, “You’re a strange bird Dieter. Guy tries to kill you and you want his job…” Zahn is outstanding too – his scarily wasted frame topped by hollow, haunted eyes. The scene where Dengler reassures his emotionally broken compatriot, “I am your true friend” is a choker.
The surprise for some critics has been the apparently apolitical stance of the picture – as Herzog zeroes in on the struggle to survive, with little reference to the wider context. But this isn’t the place for grandstanding anti-war speeches; the horror and futility of the conflict is self-evident. And Dengler is the best of what a soldier can be; committed to the idea of America, yes, but just as much to his fellow man. As he says to his chief interrogator: “I never wanted to go to war. I saw enough as a child. I only wanted to fly…”