Rescue Dawn (2007)

Rated: PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.
Length: 120 minutes
Grade: BDB+A=B
Budget: $10 million
Box Office: $29 million ($5 US, $2 Intl, $22 DVD)

Written and Directed by: Werner Herzog, who has a lot of movies you've never heard of before.
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies.
Summary: This dramatization of the life of Dieter Dengler tells the story of the only American POW in Vietnam or Laos to successfully escape captivity. After being shot down on his first mission over Laos, Dengler manages to become the leader of a small group of prisoners and leads the rag-tag band in a complicated escape effort.

Entertainment Value: B
Steve Zahn is outstanding. Jeremy Davies is outstanding. And Christian Bale is outstanding. And the story itself is gripping. But the movie suffers from a small number of flaws. One is the dialogue both within the camp and certainly on the aircraft carrier before and after often seemed awkward and contrived. The other is that the scene of him flying and then getting shot down looked particularly unrealistic. Almost comically so. Otherwise, very good.

Superficial Content: D
Drugs/Alcohol A, Sexuality A, Violence D, Language D, Illegality B
The language is certainly strong, although it’s realistic of what one would expect both from pilots and prisoners of war. The violence is a combination of ill-treatment of prisoners, war violence including killing, and one beheading. It’s a movie about a POW camp. As such, this is pretty much what you would expect.

Significant Content: B+
This movie is essentially about the power of optimism. Dengler comes into a frayed, tense, and despair-ridden community of prisoners and manages to become their leader and unite them behind the goal of escaping. It’s about never giving up, being persistent, and doing whatever is necessary to accomplish your goal. Other strong themes here are courage, leadership, and strength.

Artistic/Thought Value: A
Werner Herzog walks an incredibly difficult line in this movie because he manages to successfully do several things that seem almost impossible to do simultaneously. This movie shows the awful truth about POW camps in Vietnam, but without turning the Vietnamese into the object of our hatred. Everyone on both sides is painfully real, rather than the caricatures and kill-‘em-all enthusiasm of a Rambo movie. It’s a human interest story much more than an action flick. He also manages to show the anarchy of warfare without glorifying war and yet also not becoming even remotely an anti-war diatribe. And in the end, it’s still entertaining enough that you want to watch it. To put all those pieces successfully together in a film is really quite amazing. On a minor note, one device that I particularly appreciated here was the refusal to give subtitles for the Vietnamese and Laotians. This is essential for cultivating the sense of understanding what POWs go through.

Discussion Questions:
~If this movie had been written as a fictional script, what major plot elements would have been different?
~What lessons about life and leadership can you draw from Dieter Dengler?
~What devices does this movie use to portray the guards as real people rather than as mere objects for our hatred?
~How do you think people from Southeast Asia react when watching most American films about the war? Do you think their reaction to this movie would be the same?
~Is it possible for a movie to give an accurate vicarious experience of warfare or being a POW? Are we just deceiving ourselves when we watch any movie like this and think we understand the reality of such things?
~Would you describe Dengler as irrational? In what ways can “irrationality” be an asset in extremely unusual circumstances?
~Do you think Dengler would want to go back and fight more after this experience?
~Does this movie have any impact on your thinking about another famous POW, John McCain?

Overall Grade: B
It wasn’t what I expected, but it was certainly a story I’m glad to have watched. And again, the acting is truly excellent.

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