The based-on-fact tale of German-American fighter pilot Dieter Dengler (Bale), who was shot down in Laos in the early stages of the Vietnam War, then incarcerated in a POW camp. There, he attempts to rally his listless comrades and stage an escape.
Christian Bale, it would seem, is at the mercy of his cheekbones. While they lend him a hacked-from-marble intensity that marks him out as the best-looking Batman yet, they’re apparently determined to pierce free of his flesh at least once every few movies - followed by his shoulder blades, ribs, hips…
How else to explain his decision to again shed girth and muscle-mass for Rescue Dawn, as he did for his wincingly skeletal performance in The Machinist? Here we see him once more hitting a masculine size zero as his character suffers the privations of POW-camp life. It’s not quite as severe as his look in The Machinist, and co-star Jeremy Davies (now less an actor than a tediously limited repertoire of tics) outdoes him in the xylophone-ribcage stakes, but you can’t fault Bale’s dedication.
It transfers well to the character of Dengler himself, for whom writer/director Werner Herzog clearly has a lot of love. Back in 1997, he documented the real-life pilot’s ‘Nam (mis)adventure in Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Coursing with Boy’s Own bravado, tempered by a will of steel, Bale’s Dengler utilises impressive survival skills to stave off starvation, boredom, abuse and even the intransigence of his fellow POWs and attempt a remarkable break-out.
Even ignoring the fact that Herzog’s already told this story, he’s on very familiar territory here, especially when Dengler and his buddy Duane (Steve Zahn) become entangled in the jungle. Echoes of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo reverberate around Dengler’s predicament, although the latter’s ultimately delirium-tinged obsessiveness is rather less interesting given its more valiant roots. And the story rumbles along on a narrow, well-worn track that allows only the occasional small surprise, while the final moments are a little too literally uplifting. Not that it’s uninvolving; it’s just a shame to see Herzog being so, well, conventional.
Herzogs planted rather too firmly in his discomfort zone, but Bale once again confirms himself as one of our most intense, committed and watchable actors.