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Acclaimed German director Werner Herzog returned to narrative filmmaking after a long departure from the medium with “Rescue Dawn.”  Herzog tackles the same subject matter of his well regarded documentary “Little Dieter Learns to Fly”, the story of a US Navy pilot shot down and taken prison in the early days of the Vietnam War.  Primarily a prisoner of war movie, “Rescue Dawn” has lush scenery and some good performances from stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn.  While a decent effort by all involved, “Dawn” feels like a minor effort.  It lacks narrative ambition and seems short on scope.

The low budget of the project seems painfully obvious in its first act, air combat sequence.  A truncated and clumsy sequence where Bale’s pilot seems to survive his crash by literally falling out of his plane as it hits the ground.  After this the film moves to strictly jungle locations and bamboo huts.  Bale meets fellow prisoners Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies and others and immediately begins to hatch a plan for escape.  Bale and Zahn are the only characters with meaningful screen time.  Both actors sustain the familiar story and drive it forward with engaging performances.  Zahn’s physical dedication to the role is shocking while Bale demonstrates a certain pluckiness often absent from his repertoire.  Undercutting some of this is Herzog who cuts short character arcs by having several characters depart the movie unceremoniously or too suddenly.  The narrative and dramatic reach of the movie slowly shortens and we’re left with nothing more than a movie about two guys starving in the jungle.

Herzog has unending passion for the edges of the world and the men who wind up in them, but here his story isn’t much different from any other escape/survival story.  Nor does he have anything very important to contribute to the historical Vietnam debate.  He’s treading on familiar territory, not really finding anything original to do with the material.  Otherwise the scenery and the situation are compelling, but the movie rarely feels necessary.  The last scene is particularly odd as it feels ripped directly out of a triumphant sports film, hero hoisted up on shoulders of a cheering mass and all.  A film preoccupied with unfettered grimness suddenly ends on a note which feels fabricated and false.  It may drive home the point of the importance of survival and the thrill of victory, but it feels out of place.

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