I really wanted to like Rescue Dawn, a movie now in theaters. I loved the director's Werner Hertzog's recent documentary Grizzly Man and was looking forward to seeing the same psychological insight brought to bear in the amazing true story of Vietnam P.O.W., Dieter Dengler. But, alas, Rescue Dawn was astoundingly uninsightful, as the incredible tumble of true story details crowds out any effort to actually create a story here.
A story is something that has meaning. It is communicating some kind of lesson about human life. The storyteller selects details that support that meaning. This is how stories are "better than real." The lessons of real life are mostly unknown to us because we have a perspective that is limited by time and access. Stories correct these problems and allow us to apprehend kharma.
Like pretty much every bio-pic about an extraordinary character, Rescue Dawn's main challenge was having too much story. It's interesting how most made up stories that come across my desk for the screen, end up not having enough story. But true stories almost always have too much to work with. So, in this project, the filmmakers were in such a rush to squeeze in all the cool memories that Dieter had about his nightmarish experience getting shot down, tortured, imprisoned and then escaping from the Viet Kong, that they don't have any time to make sense out of it all for us. When I was leaving the theater with my group of five female friends, all of whom work in the business, the most oft-repeated comment was of the "What was that about?" variety. We spent several minutes afterward trying to come up with some theme that could pull together all the events in the film. We came up with that Rescue Dawn is about how a human being can survive pretty much everything if only he has...what? But this was the problem. The filmmakers didn't seem to know.
Dieter's character lacks an arc. He doesn't change at all from the beginning of his horrific experiences to the end. He just survives. A story would have identified the thing that Dieter is living for that allows him to survive. Is it love, or patriotism, or faith in God, or friendship, or passion for life that allows Dieter to keep on struggling? The film makes a wave at each of these, but never takes a position on how Dieter needs to grow to survive. Is isn't enough to expect the viewer's to root to have a character's body saved. We want to know that his soul has been saved, and the lack of this is ultimately what makes Rescue Dawn fall flat.
Hence, the movie is a harrowing litany of the details of one man's life, that left me never feeling real empathy for him. In the mad rush of getting beaten and starved and chased and shot and starving and pulling slugs off his body and watching friends get killed, Dieter remains spiritually inaccessible to the audience. I mean spiritually here in the sense of human spirit, not religiously.
I find this a perplexing misstep from director Hertzog, because he managed to make such a profound statement about the human spirit's longing for meaning in Grizzly Man. That project summed up for me the thesis of Fr. Benedict Groeschel that, "If you don't give people the good God, they'll make themselves a bad one." Rescue Dawn has a hundred times as many dramatic events as Grizzly man, but not a tenth of the story.
The production elements are okay. Clearly, they didn't have enough budget to tell the story better. The paltry number of actors used in the prison camp, and the reliance on the jungle as the principle set made the low budget very obvious. The acting from Christian Bale and Steven Zahn (who lost forty pounds to play the role!) were as best as can be expected considering that they too didn't know the point of their character's adventures. The rest of the acting was uneven and, in the case of the Laotian cast, pretty bad. I recall being annoyed at the score at one point, finding it over the top.
From a writing standpoint, I thought the whole prison camp sequence was over-long and actually got boring for lack of information. It relied too heavily on the occasional moments of Viet Kong brutality to keep the pacing going. I thought the ending was unsatisfying, because, again, it just felt like the movie stopped, but didn't end, in the sense of telling me what the point of the whole journey had been.
Parents and the squeamish should know that there are disturbing - although mostly unbloody to keep the PG-13 rating - sequences of torture and of what men will try to eat when they are starving. Think living squirmy things. There is a lot of talk about bodily excretions and some vulgar language.
I can't recommend Rescue Dawn. It will fade fast and you won't have missed anything by missing it.