2007-08-17 / Columnists


'Survival Dawn' - Survival Of The Thinnest
Review By Robert Snyder

Christian Bale is an actor in the Robert De Niro body-transformation tradition. But while De Niro put on pounds for aging boxer Jake LaMotta of "Raging Bull," Bale tends to take them off for his tortuous roles.

As he did in 1994's '"The Machinist," Bale gets seriously emaciated for his role in Werner Herzog's POW escape film, "Rescue Dawn." And, he's not the only one. His co-actor-prisoners (Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Galen Yuen, Abhujati Jusakul, and Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat) are also down to skin and bones for the true story of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Bale), who miraculously survived weeks in a Laotian jungle after bursting out of a brutal POW camp before the start of the Vietnam War.

Unlike the epic-scale "The Bridge on the River Kwai," Herzog's first Hollywood feature, this movie is essentially a three-character piece, though both films focus on the triumph of human will to survive the most intolerably inhumane ordeals.

Arevisit of the real-life tale in Herzog's 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," "Rescue Dawn" opens in 1966 with Dengler taking his jet fighter on a covert bombing mission into Laos. He is shot down, captured and, when he refuses to sign a statement denouncing "United States' imperialist policies," tortured. Thrown in a prison camp, he meets fellow American military men, Duane (Zahn) and Gene (Davies), along with three Southeast Asian prisoners, Y.C. (Yuen), Phisit (Jusakul) and Procet (Chunsuttiwat).

To his colleagues' surprise, Dieter immediately begins hatching plans to escape. Though Duane and the Asians are receptive, Gene is dead set against rocking the boat, believing that the U.S. will rescue them soon, despite the military's official stance that these guys do not exist.

After Dieter shows his self-reliance by picking the prisoners' nightly handcuffs, he acts on his escape plan, stealing weapons, killing guards and hightailing it into the dense jungle

It is in the tropical forest that Herzog completely connects, having made such man vs. nature masterpieces as '"Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," his camera caressing every leaf, rain drop and rock formation. Duane is the only prisoner to stick by "big brother" Dieter, weathering leeches, monsoons, starvation, more starvation, a near tumble over a waterfall and nasty natives (actually, Duane doesn't fare so well with the natives).

Faced with the futility of trying to have U.S. helicopters acknowledge his presence (other than as the enemy), Dieter begins to slip into madness, imagining ghosts and developing a glazed look of despair. Still, it doesn't stop him from catching and biting into a live snake for sustenance.

In the end, rescue and redemption do come to Dieter. At that point, his new enemy becomes two slippery CIA agents who want to "debrief him" into oblivion.

Don't miss "Rescue Dawn." It will make you want to run to the refrigerator, then pray Christian Bale puts on poundage for his next "Batman" movie."

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