It's difficult to classify the stark nature and tone of 'Rescue Dawn.' As directed by German art-house auteur Werner Herzog, this challenging wartime opus certainly bears little resemblence to one of granddad's old John Wayne war flicks. Indeed, the overall experience is so disturbing, so nauseating, and so upsetting that I was genuinely surprised to find that it's only rated PG-13.
Based on Herzog's own 1997 documentary 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly,' 'Rescue Dawn' tells the true story of Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos and captured by the Vietcong at the beginning of the Vietnam War. After suffering torture at the hands of his captors, Dieter (Christian Bale) is ultimately brought to a Laotian camp where he's imprisoned with other POWs including Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), and Pisidhi Indradat (Abhijati Jusakul). As the months wear on, Dieter devises an escape plan and leads the prisoners to freedom, only to discover that the Vietcong were nothing compared to the harsh rainy season and natural dangers of the Laotian jungle.
Herzog's account of Dieter's imprisonment may be unflinching and depressing, but 'Rescue Dawn' remains a thrilling epic of the human spirit. Christian Bale is fascinating as a man who refuses to bend in the face of torture and almost certain death, handling the slow bleeding madness that overcomes the cocky pilot with grace and respect. He allows Dieter to unhinge from scene to scene, but retains the core of the man and delivers a complete and complex performance. As he's done with previous roles, Bale also demonstrates an astonishing physical commitment to his performance, once again losing a tremendous amount of weight for the role, and even allowing himself to be put through torture scenes without the assistance of CG enhancements or quick edits.
Likewise, Steve Zahn is a revelation. Although I've enjoyed his comic timing in other roles, I have to admit that at first I couldn't picture him as a frazzled POW. But to my surprise, his comedic roots completely disappear underneath this heart breaking performance. When we meet him, Duane is already a man at the end of his rope, but Zahn's performance is far from one-note. Instead, his Duane slowly digs out of his own stupor to escape a frightening mental prison long before he escapes the physical one. It's an Oscar-worthy supporting performance if I've ever seen one.
Jeremy Davies rounds out a trio of masterful performances. While Herzog's dramatization drastically changes his character, it adds to the drama of the tale and allows Davies to completely sell the horror and the insanity of a prisoner of war. His Gene is the polar opposite of Dieter -- there's a bitterness and rage behind his eyes that reveal a vast hopelessness and disillusionment with his own government. Davies twists his gestures and expressions to portray a man who has seen the abyss and fallen headlong into it.
Herzog does a wonderful job weaving his cast's performances together into a tragic tapestry of pain and suffering. But while I appreciated the director's pacing and the overall tone of the film, I did feel there were some inconsistencies that undermined the story itself. First, a few moments feel a tad exploitive, with Herzog's camera lingering on shots of torture long after the horror of the situation has been effectively established. Second, the climax of the film features a bizarre happy ending that seems to forget the tone of the rest of the film. Finally, although certain character alterations certainly help increase the dramatic tension of the film, I personally would have preferred to see a more true-to-life representation of Gene, in particular.
Still, 'Rescue Dawn' remains an intriguing film that ultimately feels more like an R-rated documentary than a PG-13 war flick. It's definitely one of the more intensely disturbing and difficult films I've seen in quite some time. Fans of action flicks may not take to bleak reality of 'Rescue Dawn,' but the film is a nuanced character study that features three astonishing performances.
My first visual impressions of 'Rescue Dawn' led me to believe this release would spark another director's intent vs. final image quality debate. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer begins with low-res archive footage and scenes set in a steely-toned aircraft carrier that reveal little more than a veneer of heavy film grain. I braced myself for the worst.
But after ten minutes, the film comes alive. When Dieter first dives below the clouds, colors practically erupt on the screen. A sharp blue sky offsets vibrant jungle greens to create a truly stunning image. The palette retains its uninviting nature, but has the distinct stability of a high definition. Detail is particularly strong, with long shots of the Laotian landscapes peppered with sharp edges and crisp textures. Aside from a few ugly, intentionally soft shots (like a slow pan of the mountainous horizon after Dieter crashes), the high-def image is packed with minor elements that go unnoticed on the standard defination DVD. Black levels are deep and the frequent nighttime scenes don't suffer from crushing, artifacting, or other source noise. In fact, my only issue with the source is that it exhibits spiking grain fields and slight banding in shots of low lying fog.
All in all, 'Rescue Dawn' snuck up on me. It doesn't have the polish or sheen of a demo disc, but its subtle attributes add up to create an impressive picture. Better still, this Blu-ray edition offers a substantial visual upgrade over the standard DVD, managing to retain the depressing tone of the film without sacrificing its high definition edge.
'Rescue Dawn' features a DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track that effectively conveys the dense soundscape of a kinetic jungle. Even the film's most quiet scenes permeate with the low whistle of insects and the hushed swishing of leaves. The impact is subtle, but convincing. Amazing accuracy adds to the illusion as each foliage crack and bullet hiss is placed perfectly in the soundfield.
Even more impressive are the sudden explosions of sound that bombard the listener throughout the film. After a sonically underwhelming opening, the surrounds come alive to deliver a rumbling plane crash that pushes every speaker to its limit. After this initial shock of sound, the design takes full advantage of the LFE channel to make gun shots crack like thunder and helicopters thump overhead. When Zahn and Bale encounter a group of villagers during the last leg of their escape, the whine of the jungle, a thick thunk of a machete, and a chilling scream of desperation literally turned my stomach. Granted, the scene is disturbing on its own, but the sound design really made this moment sink in and feel all too real.
My one major problem with the audio on this disc is that dialogue among the POWs is way too quiet at times (especially the whispered mumblings from Jeremy Davies). In fact, I eventually turned on the film's subtitles for fear of missing key plot points. This effect may add to the tension of the film, but I found that it pulled me out of the film every time I had to backtrack or use subtitles to catch everything. Still, the DTS HD MA mix on this Blu-ray edition of 'Rescue Dawn' is an impressive exercise in reality that legitimately sustains the bleak tone of the film.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Rescue Dawn' includes all of the special features that appear on the concurrently released standard DVD. Unfortunately, I had a terrible time navigating the menus -- black text turns red when an option is selected, but the new color is so hard to read that I ended up selecting the wrong feature on more than one occasion. Although the supplemental content is ultimately worth the effort, the eye strain and confusion is annoying to say the least.
'Rescue Dawn' is certainly a challenging film, but I personally found it rewarding and recommend others give it a try. As a Blu-ray release, this one's very strong, boasting an excellent video transfer, a convincing DTS HD MA audio track and a nice collection of supplemental features.