The Vietnam War has taken many forms in the movies -- but most of the big, memorable versions like "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" cast it in a mythic light meant to illuminate larger questions. The excellent film "Rescue Dawn," about a man's struggle to escape a prison camp, is in some ways simpler. It uses the war more as a backdrop for a thrilling true story of an extraordinary person while hinting at the larger reality of what would become a very dirty fight.
It doesn't seem that way to the American servicemen making bombing runs when the film opens in 1965. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), whom director Werner Herzog covered once before in his documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly" (1997), is one of a small group of cocky Navy pilots flying covert missions over Indochina, bombing raids meant to take out strategic communist objectives. Seen laughing with his buddies during instructional training aboard his aircraft carrier, he's shot down on his first mission over Laos. Though he manages to evade the enemy for a day or so, he's eventually captured, interrogated, tortured and imprisoned at a camp.
When Dieter sees the condition of the handful of prisoners who've preceded him, he immediately begins planning his escape. His story is truly remarkable, and Bale is fully in charge of this riveting character. With this story, his career has come full circle since the height of his childhood acting days in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," another based-in-truth story, about a boy evading the Japanese in China during World War II.
Herzog revels in a true story as well, this being his first narrative film in half a decade. This is what an action movie looks like when made by a professional. Herzog ratchets up the tension while dropping revelations throughout that explain Dieter's uncanny ability to survive. But Dieter also succeeds on instinct, at other times on pure chance. Mostly, though, Dieter is portrayed as someone who has the will to try.
The contemporary fashion may still be to avoid hero worship in "realistic" stories, but no English word is today so in need of salvaging. Dieter himself argued later in life, before his death, that the only heroes are dead, and society often calls men like his fellow prisoners heroes simply for enduring their extreme circumstances. "Rescue Dawn" argues, intentionally or not, against this notion. If it has a big statement, it is that heroes don't simply endure, they do something. (PG-13) 120 min. S