Because life is a series of edits

Collective Movie Review: Rescue Dawn

In Movies on July 18, 2007 at 7:27 am

Saw Rescue Dawn last night with Ed Eubanks, Nick Gleason, Clay Johnson, Mark Peach, and Travis Scott. I asked the guys if they’d contribute a thought or two to a collective movie review here today, so check the comments for their thoughts as they post them.

In the meantime, here’s a brief summary along with a few thoughts of my own on the film:

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, an American who naively signs up with the Navy to “just fly planes,” but instead gets sent on a secret mission to bomb targets in Laos during the Vietnam Conflict. Dengler’s plane gets shot down and he is captured, enduring plenty of hardship along the way. The rest of the movie focuses on his interactions with a handful of other POWs and their quest to survive and eventually escape.

The plot is familiar and includes much of what you might expect from a movie about Vietnam – lots of jungle, plenty of hungry people (both American and Vietnamese), and rain. Unfortunately, there was little new to add to one’s understanding of Vietnam (which was disappointing coming from documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog) and very little character development as to who Dengler and his fellow prisoners really are (other than prisioners).

I went in to the movie with high hopes of seeing a really great performance from Christian Bale (who I really like as an actor), but I’m not sure I saw anything particularly exceptional. In general, Bale is best the darker things get, and his overly-optimistic portrayal of Dengler (especially early on) seemed forced. Still, his intensity was good, and he endured some pretty nasty stuff to play the part, so those are points in my book.

I was, however, blown away by the performances of prisoners Jeremy Davies as “Eugene from Eugene (OR)” and Steve Zahn as “Dwayne,” who I thought stole the show. Davies essentially starved himself in real life to play the incredibly gaunt (and semi-delusional) Eugene, and Zahn was brilliantly fragile peering out through emotional eyes from behind his overgrown beard and hair. Possible Oscar for best supporting actor? I’d say Zahn could be in the running.

Those are some of my initial observations. I’ll turn it over to the guys and see what they think.

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  1. okay, so i figured that someone else would have commented by now. i don’t really have much to add to what craig said. i was rather disappointed by the film but that may be because i had high expectations from both herzog and bale. overall i thought the movie was rather flat. i give it 2 1/2 stars out of 5.

  2. In many ways, if you’ve seen one prisoner of war movie, you’ve seen them all. This one was probably better than most, but rather unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. Craig is right that Davies and Zahn were brilliant in their roles. Travis is right that the movie as a whole is rather middle-of-the-road.

    Like Craig, I also noticed that the movie didn’t give us any more of a picture of Vietnam than what we’ve seen in many other movies. Looking through some of the IMDb links, though, I noticed that 10 years ago Herzog did an actual documentary on Dengler. So I guess we can surmise that his passion was to tell Dengler’s story, not Vietnam’s. So be it.

    I wonder, though, what the point of telling Dengler’s story is. I have no doubt that in the next few weeks (or within a few weeks of when the movie is actually released) there will be more than one pastor who uses some aspect of this story as a sermon illustration. There are many aspects of the story that could easily illustrate some aspect(s) of the gospel or the Christian life. Yet, I have no way of knowing whether Herzog ever had that intention or even entertained such a notion.

    There is a point when Dieter asks God a hard and sorrowful question. Yet it seemed out of place to me. It was too late in the action to be seen as characteristic of the character. And neither was the question answered immediately, which would be the signal to the audience that the filmmaker intended us to understand that God was indeed listening. So, I don’t know that Herzog was really making a theological point there any more than he was anywhere else.

    So what was the point of the story? I don’t know. I’m asking.

    Man’s depravity… Friendship… Betrayal… Sacrifice… Survival… Maybe there were just too many themes being juggled at once so that none of them were fleshed out. Or, maybe Herzog was just telling the story of a guy’s life. And sometimes a guy’s life doesn’t have a “theme” or a “moral” or a “point.” But a movie is supposed to.

    One technical note about the movie: there were parts of the movie that had an older documentary look, such as the bombings of Laos and whatnot. I suspect they were actual footage from the time, but they may have been altered film or something. Anyway, something that may have been rather risky, but that might have made the audience feel more like a part of the ordeal and not just observers would have been to make the movie with more of a documentary feel, like with a hand-held camera. It might not have worked. But it might have really worked.

  3. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this show. I had never seen a Herzog film nor had I seen any film starring Christian Bale. Rescue Dawn isn’t a comprehensive Vietnam movie like Platoon or Apocalypse Now, but it doesn’t have to be. It is a fine protrayal of the quest of survival by a few men. I thought the film did a good job drawing to the surface the issue of individualism versus working together in this quest to survive.

    Although, I would have like to see the film’s main character, Dieter, developed a little more. There is no internal conflict within Dieter that is reveal in the film. Dieter is always protrayed as taking the higher moral ground and doesn’t seem to struggle morally at such a time of crisis. However, the film does a fantastic job drawing out pictures of comradery, especially between Dieter and Dwayne. Dwayne played by Steve Zahn I thought was exceptional.

    The music was also great in that it match the mood of the film well. The setting of the film was done well also. The opposition from the environment along with human opposition these men face adds to the films intensity. The film footage in the jungle adds to the intensity of the film.

    Finally, like Craig mentioned, I would have liked to see a little more character development, but overall I did come away satisfied.

  4. responding to nick: i think there was some of an intentional documentary-esque feel to the movie. the actual film is quite grainy and scratchy, a bit jumpy, and the colors tended to be slightly washed out as if shot by a hand-held. overall i’d say there was a real 1968 feel to the way the film was shot.

    responding to mark: i totally agree with you on the music. besides steve zahn and jeremy davies the music was probably the best feature of the film. very haunting in some ways. it was also an interesting use of contrast – the music was highly organized classiccal pieces set against the chaos of human depravity and misery. i disagree with your assessment that “the film does a fantastic job drawing out pictures of comradery…” i think this was the obvious intention (and it was pulled off a few times) but generally i thought the dialogue between the characters was very strained and clumbsy.

  5. I also felt like the film was great for its supporting roles– Dwayne was an award-winning performance (watch for that in January, everyone– my prediction).

    Apart from that, I generally agree with the sentiments above, save one: I felt like it was unlike other Vietnam movies that I’ve seen, in that it didn’t focus particularly on battle or on the resue of POWs, but on the perspective of POWs as they are in the camp. There may be other good films that portray this, but I haven’t seen them; most of what I’ve seen is either the glory/trauma/struggle of battle (a la We Were Soldiers, Platoon, Apocalypse Now) or the struggle to rescue soldiers who were encamped (e.g., Uncommon Valor and, yes, Rambo: First Blood pt. 2). I was refreshed at this new perspective.

  6. ed,
    another film to check out from that perspective is “To End All Wars.” although it’s set during ww2 instead of vietnam it deals with the
    POW perspective. it’s a little overtly christian and somewhat preachy at times but overall i thought it captured what you’re talking about better than “Rescue Dawn.”

  7. Nick said: BOQ I noticed that 10 years ago Herzog did an actual documentary on Dengler. So I guess we can surmise that his passion was to tell Dengler’s story, not Vietnam’s. So be it. . . . I wonder, though, what the point of telling Dengler’s story is. EOQ

    These two things sum up the movie for me. The point of telling Dengler’s story was to tell Dengler’s story. That was the only point I could discern from the movie; and Herzog told the story engagingly.

    I was disappointed that Herzog didn’t use more historical and relationship context to enrich the narrative and make me more interested in it. All of the movie’s details served the narrative, and Herzog developed history and relationships only insofar as they served the narrative of Dengler’s courageous and lucky escape from death, war, and jungle.

    I went into the movie with no knowledge (apart from skimming Dengler’s story on the website) and no real expectations. As I left the movie the best that I could say was, “Yep, great story; amazing escape.” This one-dimensionality hurt the movie. Said slightly differently, I’m glad that there wasn’t a big discussion group after the movie because there really wasn’t enough historical context (e.g., raising or even answering questions about Air America) or character development to leave much to discuss!

    All in all I think Herzog probably accomplished his goal — it is a great story and told engagingly. Herzog could have taken everyone farther, though, if he had lifted his eyes from Dengler’s steps to the horizon of the story’s greater potential.

  8. Hey Craig– Any idea how many hits this post has received? I don’t think these reviews are what the studio was hoping for when they invited us to their preview.

  9. By WordPress’s count, the individual page had about 70 clicks as of 10 p.m. Thursday night. However, I don’t know how many folks just landed on it, read it, and didn’t bother with the comments. Let’s just suppose and pretend it was in the thousands.

    I appreciate everyone’s perspective here – it sounds like we saw roughly the same movie. And don’t worry about the studio – it’s not like their invitation was personal (I’ll have my people call their people and all will be fine).

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