I was watching Batman Begins for the nth time, when it struck me that I loved Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. After I saw Saving Private Ryan, I told myself, "This will be the last war movie I'll see". For all its critical acclaim, Saving Private Ryan was cheesy, and played to the gallery till the very last note. So when Rescue Dawn came along, I dismissed it as another war movie, or worse still, an ego exercise for a rather intriguing actor. Eating maggots? Ew, I thought! But when I saw Rescue Dawn on the list of in-flight movies on a 5-hour flight, I couldn't resist taking a peek.
Rescue Dawn is no war movie. Yes, it is set in the thick of the Vietnam War, and the protagonist is a US Naval pilot who is shot down and held prisoner. But thats all there is to it. Like Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), Werner Herzog wisely stays away from political statements (In this case, the machinations of the war in Nam). For instance, Dieter Dangler (Bale) is shot down in Laos (this is based on a true story), where the US is not supposed to have ever been. That the US bombed Laos to the last centimeter so that if one waters the ground there, a bomb tree would grow, is not something Herzog wants to get into. Nor does he portray the Viet Cong as black villains who indulge in horrendous forms of torture.
A lesser director would have added more drama, shown us blisters on sore feet, cut to a painful grimace of the man who is brave in the face of adversity. A lesser actor would have hammed it up, given us soulful stares and ponderous dialogue delivery. Instead, Dangler salvages a single rotting shoe and gives it to his fellow escapee Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) with the glee of a child who has found a stray marble. (Spoiler alert!) A few scenes later, he snatches away the same single shoe from the the dead Martin's foot without so much as a second thought! Bale does eat real maggots (if media reports are to be believed), but its not a big deal in the movie. Nor is it when Bale strips off a snake's head with his teeth (hope at least that was not real!).
Rescue Dawn could have well descended into a weepy, heavy handed picture. Instead Herzog and Bale work to create one of the most beautiful testaments to the human spirit that we have seen. I'd like to watch the Golden Globe nominated "Into the Wild" to see if Sean Penn even comes close! Bale is a class act, even without fancy outfits and terrible weight loss programmes (well, he had to lose some for this role, but not as bad as The Machinist). Note to self: see 3:10 to Yuma soon. Steve Zahn does some good work here as Duane Martin. In some scenes, he almost steals the thunder from under Bale's nose.
Verdict: Great movie. Bale is now at the top of the list along with Gael Garcia Bernal, and therefore earns the tag "amazing"!