Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an American Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, is shot down over Laos, captured, tortured and held in a POW camp in the Laotian jungle, where he immediately begins plotting his escape, though no one has flown the coop before. He is, in many respects, a classic action-movie hero—courageous, clever, indomitable. But "Rescue Dawn" is a Werner Herzog movie (and a true story), and though it's as taut and exciting as many edge-of-your-seat Hollywood escape movies, there's a mania about Dieter that sets him apart, a wild-eyed bravado that suggests the line between bravery and complete lunacy is a thin one. Who better than Bale, who is scarily good at macho obsessiveness, to take on the challenge?
Herzog, always at his best working in insufferable jungle conditions ("Aguirre, the Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo") is fascinated by stories of extreme will. He's told this one before, in his 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," and it clearly has its hooks in him. The fine cast includes a haunted, haggard Steve Zahn and the jittery, dangerously emaciated Jeremy Davies as fellow prisoners driven half mad by their ordeal. This being a Herzog movie (and a thumping good one), you can't be sure if they are acting or if their director's zeal for authenticity has indeed driven them round the bend.