Dieter Dengler is Werner Herzog's kind of guy, a high-spirited dreamer and adventurer who has the courage to stare death in the face and not flinch. Herzog first captured Dengler's harrowing tale of survival in the 1998 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, and he returns to it in the rousing feature Rescue Dawn, which brings Dengler's vivid memories and sketches to full life. As played by Christian Bale at his most exuberant, Dengler gets put through impossible, spirit-crushing hardship after he's shot down over Laos in the early stages of the Vietnam War, then confined to a brutal prison camp. Yet he's best defined by his broad, toothy grin: He smiles when he refuses to sign a letter condemning America for its aggression, even though it seals a grim fate. He smiles when he drops an arm around fellow POW Duane Martin, resuscitating his weak, sullen mate when things seem hopeless. And he smiles when he's rescued, too, though he knows his memories will haunt him forever.
As a young boy, odd little Dieter had his first impulse to fly after witnessing Allied planes destroying his village. The film picks up shortly after Dengler enlisted in the Navy and was shipped off to fight in Vietnam to engage in classified offensives against the Vietcong. In one of his first missions, Dengler falls under attack from anti-aircraft guns in Laos and loses control of his plane, crash-landing in a jungle clearing. Off the grid in more ways than one, he's thrown into a prison camp with a handful of fellow combatants, whose bodies have been wrung out by hunger and dysentery. Escape is unthinkable until the rainy season, but Dengler patiently devises a plan, though some skeptics are convinced the war will end soon, and others, including his closest friend Martin (Steve Zahn), are possibly too weak to follow through.
Conditions at the camp are beyond horrific, but Herzog does well by treating them matter-of-factly, where others might have lingered. At night, the prisoners are pinned down by boards around their ankles and linked together by cross-armed handcuffs. Food is scarce and rancid (or worse, creepy-crawly), because the guards are starving, too, which only makes them meaner. Rescue Dawn pays homage to its heroes' camaraderie and will to survive, embodied by Bale's irrepressible Dengler, who's as much a crazed visionary in his own way as Herzog's Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. In a sense, his enthusiasm winds up nurturing the gaunt Martin (whom Zahn plays movingly against type), and their bond lends this more or less conventional POW escape film resounding emotional depth.