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A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this intense POW film isn't for younger viewers. The sometimes-bloody action (which is both heroic and not-so-heroic) is filtered through complicated historical and political contexts that aren't exactly kid friendly. Also, the prison camp abuse scenes are visceral and potentially upsetting, with violence that's both physical (beating, dragging, shooting, machete attacks) and psychological. Starving prisoners look extremely thin and weak; they also eat live maggots and a snake (these scenes are explicit). Characters smoke cigarettes, and there's some language, including "s--t."
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What's the story?
Assigned to conduct secret bombing missions over Laos in 1965, gung-ho German-American U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) plans ahead, designing a secret pocket for his U.S. passport and learning how to live off the land. This training comes in handy when his plane is shot down and he must survive in the jungle. But nothing can prepare him for his capture by Laotian guerrillas: They tie to him to stakes, drag him from a Jeep, beat him, and shoot at him. Though he's at first appalled by his mistreatment, he maintains faith in America, his adopted country. In the prison camp, Dieter gets acquainted with fellow prisoners Duane (Steve Zahn), Gene (Jeremy Davies), and local "offender" Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul). They tell him about their brutal captors and encourage him to keep a low profile. When Dieter insists that he'll escape, the others scoff, pointing to their severe surroundings, which are full of bugs, snakes, angry civilians, enemy fighters, and non-potable water. But stubborn Dieter refuses to give in, even as his escape scheme also stirs up distrust and disharmony among his fellows. He must learn to be more generous -- and even forgiving -- in order to survive.
Is it any good?
By turns exciting and disturbing, Rescue Dawn showcases writer-director Werner Herzog's signature interests in moral ambiguities and emotional adversities. While the wide shots of the jungle can be breathtaking, close-up scenes of abused bodies and maggots (which serve as lunch for the starving prisoners) are disconcerting. And even though the guards appear monstrous to the prisoners (with no subtitles, their dialogue remains unknown for English-only speakers), the United States' activities during the Vietnam War raise questions.
That said, the movie's individual portraits -- especially the intimate, uneven, and wonderfully strange relationship that gradually develops between Dieter and Duane -- are poignant and engrossing. While its subject matter (prisoners of war) is surely timely, its complications are timeless.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the impact of the movie's violent torture scenes. Which abuses are worse -- the physical ones or the psychological ones? Why? What is the effect of showing the violence from the victims' point of view? What statement is the movie making about prisoner abuse -- no matter who the prisoners or the captors are? How are the captors in this movie characterized? Is what they're doing different from what characters like Jack Bauer do to suspected terrorists on shows like 24? How?
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