Someone needs to give Christian Bale a sandwich and some diet counseling. If this guy continues to gain and lose alarming amounts of poundage for movie roles (see also The Machinist), he’s going to have some kidney problems (or worse) coming his way soon enough. I’m just saying. But audiences seem to dig this sort of extreme method acting, as Bale won the Audience Award for Best Actor at the Seattle International Film Festival for Rescue Dawn, and, according to buzz, may just be on his way to an Oscar nomination for this role as well.
The era is the mid-1960s, and Bale is Dieter Dengler, an absurdly chipper newbie U.S. Navy pilot getting his first mission in the Vietnam War. He unfortunately ends up getting shot down just over the border in Laos, a country that the United States (officially at least) claims no military involvement. Somehow surviving the fiery crash, Dengler gets captured and thrown into a P.O.W. camp where a handful of American and sympathetic Vietnamese prisoners await. Rescue Dawn is the true story of Dengler’s fight for survival in the harsh camp, and his impressively planned escape where he and the other prisoners (including the skeletal husks of Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) overthrew the guards and managed to flee into the unforgiving jungle. Where one dramatic arc ends, the story of survival (and slow starvation) begins.
Werner Herzog previously made a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, portraying the true story of Dieter Dengler’s amazing escape. The story is ripe for a dramatic film, but unfortunately Rescue Dawn works on some levels, and not on others. Bale, Zahn, and Davies certainly look the part, with their haunted eyes, wasted, concave frames, and scraggly hair. Davies, especially, does his crazy man bit, and is so emaciated that it is uncomfortable to watch him. Whereas Davies’ character is essentially one-note (aka, crazy!), Zahn fares better. His Duane is a gentle soul who trusts to follow his friend into the jungle, but begins to succumb mentally (even before physically) despite Dengler’s never-ending positive outlook.
As far as Christian Bale’s performance, I’m split. Sure, his physical transformation was amazing, but as a characterization, I felt that the role was underwritten (which is no fault of Bale’s). I couldn’t help but think that there had to be more depth to Dengler beyond his chipper outlook on life. One moment in the film gives an inkling of what could have been: It involves Dieter’s anecdote of how he became a fighter pilot. As a young boy in war-torn Germany, he got eye contact with an American fighter pilot zooming by on a raid. He said to himself, “That is what I want to do!” It is a strange little story of one odd boy’s dream, and it hints at what more the film could have, and should have offered us to make the characterizations more three dimensional. As it is, we instead get to see a pretty typical P.O.W. escape film that is mainly memorable for the emaciated frames of the actors, and for seeing Christian Bale pull the skin off a freshly-dead snake with his teeth.