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Heroes of the Zeroes: Rescue Dawn

by on September 12, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Rescue Dawn”
Rated PG-13

Werner Herzog’s “Rescue Dawn” played like an art-house “Rambo” prequel — a lone wolf driven by madness and defiance to lead an escape from a POW camp.

Even though this 2007 drama is as commercial as the combative, challenging Herzog can get, there’s not much rah-rah. He likes peering over his fence at neighbors on the lunatic fringe of obsession, where clear-cut heroes rarely reside.

Like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (or Herzog filming “Fitzcarraldo”), Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is another mad idealist in the jungle — a German-American Navy pilot shot down over, and imprisoned in, Laos, in the 1960s. (It’s Herzog’s second spin on this story after 1997’s documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”) Dengler’s refusal to bail, even as he crashed, brands his tunnel vision a blessing and a curse.

In any other film with such a scene, Dengler’s decision to escape on Independence Day would be cheesed up by assertive nods and deafening music.

Here, it’s as if Dengler has finally worn down his cellmates — including Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies — into deciding they might as well die running rather than sleeping. (Herzog charges his camera through the canopy with them, adding to their flight’s urgency and unpredictability.)

“Rescue Dawn” is an engrossing escape film, but untraditionally somber for the timeworn genre. Herzog doesn’t pursue patriotism as product placement, but Dengler’s compulsions and fallibilities. Even at his most “heroic,” he was about to become another cog in America’s political machine.

It’s not “The Great Escape.” It’s “The Sheer, Dumb Luck Escape.”