From "The Deer Hunter" to "Rambo: First Blood Part II," the POW imprisonment-torture-and-escape genre delivers white-knuckle suspense through tightly plotted scripts and hyperspeed, push-your-buttons editing. Neither is at the core of Herzog's art-film aesthetic. His fictional films such as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" (1972) and "Fitzcarraldo" (1982), which comprise about half of his 50-plus oeuvre, tend to be character-driven. The camera follows his standard roster of outcasts, capturing them in long takes and allowing their speech and movement to set the languid rhythms that mark his work. At his best, Herzog yokes their inner struggles to the isolated landscapes that they inhabit, creating a tone both mystical and tinged with madness. At worst, actors wander about like zombies in "Heart of Glass" (1976) or contribute to the dullness of "Where the Green Ants Dream" (1984).
Fortunately, the writer-director convinced Christian Bale to cast off his Batman cape and take the demanding lead role. Bale bears a passing resemblance to the real-life Dengler, who lived in Marin County before dying of ALS in February 2001. He plays the role pragmatically, a no-frills guy with an iron will and indomitable spirit that can't be broken by starvation, a beehive tied to his head or water torture administered by Laotian guards. Although not as physically emaciated and hollow-eyed as in "The Machinist," the actor delivers another intense turn as a person pushed to his physical and psychological limits.
But Steve Zahn's performance as a fellow American captive is most haunting. Although weary after years of incarceration and wary of Dieter's plan to escape down the Mekong River to safety in Thailand, he follows him faithfully into the monsoon-drenched, snake-infested jungle.
"Rescue Dawn" feels like a POW procedural that only picks up steam during the prison escape attempt and later close encounters with the enemy. Surprisingly, Herzog doesn't try to replicate the dream-like visions that Dieter relates in the documentary, such as the undulating jellyfish that the survivor describes near-death as resembling. Without a semblance of Herzog's signature mysticism or an ounce of insightfulness, the film becomes an unremarkable retelling of a remarkable true-life story.