Filmmaker Werner Herzog is no stranger to the life of Dieter Dengler. Herzog's 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Learns to Fly, retold the story of Dengler's capture, torture, imprisonment, and stunning escape after his A-1 Skyraider was shot down over Laos on a secret mission in 1966.
With Rescue Dawn, a dramatic retelling of Dengler's story, Herzog employs a laser focus on Dengler's tribulations and the friendship that bears him out of his jungle prison.
Played by Christian Bale, Dengler is introduced as any other rookie Navy pilot preparing for his first sortie. But Dengler is different: The young pilot is actually German. He fell in love with flying after making eye contact with an Allied pilot flying over the Black Forest during World War II and later settled in the United States.
Rescue Dawn earns a PG-13 rating mostly for what happens after Laotian guerrillas capture Dengler. While being transported to a remote prison camp, Dengler endures a variety of tortures: He's suspended upside down with an ant nest bound to his face; he's dropped into a narrow well where he can barely keep his head above water; he has bullets fired past his ears.
But none of this manages to break the spirit of the sunny Dengler. When finally delivered to the prison camp and his bamboo cell, Dengler convinces fellow inmates to attempt a breakout, with limited success. The severely emaciated prisoners become free, but all except Lt. Duane W. Martin (Steve Zahn) abandon Dengler and foolishly strike out on their own.
As a result of the months of captivity together and ensuing escape attempt, Dengler and Martin became close: Near the time of his real-life death in 2001, Dengler described his relationship with Martin as closer and more important than his relationship with his own mother. Such pictures of perseverance and devoted friendship ring true through Herzog's lens.