Prison Break

Running time 126 minutes
Written and
directed by Werner Herzog
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies

From his adolescent debut in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun to his dramatic weight loss as a human skeleton in The Machinist, Christian Bale has never eschewed risk or invited compromise. Playing everything from Shakespeare to Batman, he has grown and stretched into an actor of depth, dimension and range. While the cover boys get the publicity, he does the work. But never has he deserved more serious recognition than in Werner Herzog’s astounding Rescue Dawn. Dieter Dengler, the German-born American Navy pilot who escaped from a P.O.W. camp in the horrible jungles of Laos and survived one of the most harrowing ordeals in military history, may not be his most glamorous role, but it provides this underrated actor with what is arguably the best performance of his career.

All the more hair-raising because it is true, Rescue Dawn tells how this colorful flight commander crash-landed while surreptitiously bombing Laos in 1965, found himself captured and brutally tortured by the Viet Cong contrary to the Geneva Conventions, and managed to break out, surviving against unbelievable odds. In the camp, he managed to bond with two fellow American soldiers, and the film chronicles their grueling attempts to stay alive during long months of punishment at the hands of their Pathet Lao captors. Already imprisoned for two years when Dengler arrived, his new friends Duane (Steve Zahn) and the demented “Gene from Eugene” (Jeremy Davies) tried to follow his bravery, but the prison eventually broke their spirits. Mr. Herzog, obsessed with realism, piles on the details of their daily routine—eating worms, making knives out of used rifle cartridges and screwdrivers out of flattened nails—as they tried to save each other from going insane while plotting a daring getaway. The death-defying trek through the fierce jungle cost two lives, but Dengler, near starvation and overwhelmed by the forces of nature closing in on him, was the only one with the pure will, determination and desperation to stay alive. His nightmare, his optimism and his awesome rescue by U.S. choppers that happened to be flying accidentally over the area shape one of the most relentlessly exciting, white-knuckle prison-and-escape epics ever made.

Gripping, workmanlike, but more conventional than other Herzog films like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo, it might disappoint die-hard fans of the German director who expect artier fare. Still, while it is an exceptionally well-made genre film, polished enough to make a killing in both art houses and shopping-mall multiplexes, it honors the classic Herzog theme of idealistic man versus predatory Mother Nature in a battle to achieve impossible goals. Before the real Dieter Dengler died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001, Mr. Herzog knew him well and even directed a 1997 documentary about him called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Rescue Dawn is his reverent feature-film tribute, and Christian Bale plays him with a breathtaking intensity that recalls the similarly passionate work of Herzog muse Klaus Kinski. Mr. Bale again shrinks to cadaverous proportions, and there are at least two sequences that are not for the faint-hearted—involving leeches and a live snake that Dieter bites into for survival purposes. The camerawork is stunning, the music propulsive, the clarity a blessing. A potentially commercial audience-pleaser that retains all of the characteristic Herzog complexity and nuance, Rescue Dawn is an electrifying action adventure that clamps your nerves with jaws of steel.