Rescue Dawn

In 1997, Werner Herzog produced a documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about a German born in 1938 in Schwarzwald who was inspired to become a pilot when he saw an American airplane overhead as World War II ended. Dieter went to the United States, became an American citizen, became a Navy pilot, served in a secret mission over Laos, was captured by the Pathet Lao until he escaped, then picked up by a helicopter, and eventually became a San Francisco Bay Area resident. Rescue Dawn, directed by Herzog, is a biopic that is mostly close to the actual events of his capture and escape. After his capture, he is chained on a trek to an outdoor prison in a remote location surrounded by jungle. Dieter (played by Christian Bale) is tortured en route by being hung upside down and dragged by an ox. A star on the uniform of an official indicates that North Vietnam is running the show. When he arrives in the prison, attended by teenage Lao guards, he and his fellow are fed undelectable rations and are placed side by side in legstocks during the night, when unwelcome excrement emerges. One of his fellow prisoners is insane, several are Lao or Thai, and the only sane one is Duane Martin (played by Steve Zahn). Dieter dreams of a rescue from time to time, thus undergoing the psychological malady that has perhaps overcome all of his fellow prisoners but Duane. As a onetime mechanic, Dieter designs a way to extricate the prisoners from their legstocks, and he next makes an escape plan at a time when the prison guards are contemplating shooting them all so that they can go home to get enough food to eat, as food supplies shrink before the rainy season starts. Only Dieter and Duane pull off the escape plan; the rest chicken out. Tracked down by their captors, Duane is decapitated but Dieter is rescued by a helicopter in the jungle and ultimately reaches Thailand (where the filming takes place). The Americans attend to his medical needs, but CIA interrogators so hound him in the hospital that he is rescued (again!) by Navy personnel, who fly him back to his ship to the accolades of his fellow service buddies. The subtexts of Rescue Dawn seem clear: Secret missions are a staple of American power projection; longtime harsh confinement, whether in Laos or Guantánamo, can indeed scramble one’s brain; and CIA operatives can do similar damage through psychological means. As for the real Dieter Dengler, he died in 2001–before Rescue Dawn was released on July 4, 2007. MH
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