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Escape from the brink 

Christian Bale and Steve Zahn turn in harrowing performaces as American POWs in Vietnam.

Though becoming more well known to American audiences, thanks to projects like “Grizzly Man,” German writer and director Werner Herzog is really more of a director’s director – a low-key auteur from whom the latest Hollywood hotshots learned a good deal of their tricks.

Herzog should glean quite a bit more name recognition with the release of his latest film, “Rescue Dawn.” Beautifully filmed on location in Thailand, it’s a harrowing tale of survival, deprivation and friendship.

Building on the same real-life adventure tale he used as the basis of his 1997 documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” “Rescue Dawn” is the story of Navy fighter pilot Dieter Dengler. A naturalized citizen, born in Germany, Dengler realized his dream of becoming a pilot, only to be shot down while on his first mission – a covert bombing run into Laos. Captured by Laotian troops in league with the Viet Cong, Dengler (Christian Bale) soon finds himself moldering in a jungle prison camp with six other POWs, including fellow pilot Duane (Steve Zahn). A former die maker, Dengler starts using ordinary objects to fashion simple tools. This allows him and his fellow prisoners to begin thinking of escape. They soon do and, with Duane and Dengler separated from the rest of the group, the pair makes a death-defying run for the safety of neighboring Thailand.

There is a real intensity and power to “Rescue Dawn,” mostly carried on the backs of Bale and Zahn, who both deliver award-caliber performances. Both actors starved themselves during the production, and their literal and figurative hunger is stamped on every frame. What they do to survive – eating live snakes and bowls full of squirming mealworms is only the start – will make even the most rough-and-tumble viewer stand in awe of the lengths a person will go to keep going.

If there is a flaw to “Rescue Dawn,” it’s that it treads ground so firmly packed by inferior predecessors – everything from “Behind Enemy Lines” to “Rambo.” Those shoddy ancestors are left in the dust, however, by the power and honesty of this film. As many of Herzog’s efforts, “Rescue Dawn” turns out to be a kind of tactical nuke for our expectations — designed to rearrange what the audience believes. In this case, what Herzog wants us to readdress is what defines that most Americanized of words: “hero.”

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