Rescue Dawn may distort history, but for a Hollywood production it has more than moments which do not. And the odds are it's been appreciated over the last half-decade for exactly that reason by Americans knowledgeable about the Vietnam War.
The movie stars Christian Bale and Steve Zahn as American warriors captured in Laos or northwestern South Vietnam in 1965, when according to the movie's pre-narrative, "few Americans thought the Vietnam War would become an all out war." I must have been one of those few, because I knew President Lyndon Johnson was fully committed to America's long-dead South Vietnamese puppet Diem's refusal to honor the Geneva Accords; and I sensed that America's buildup for (if not the actuality of) the bombing of North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder, had begun.
Click here to read the Wiki entry about Operation Rolling Thunder:
The movie's first scenes take place aboard the U.S.S. Hornet (having survived WW II with laurels), in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the most cracking-wise loudmouth among the officer-pilots is a man with the soon-to-become-notorious moniker "Spook."
A Navy pilot, Bale is shot down by ground fire on his first bombing mission from the Hornet across South Vietnam. At the time, America's attacks on Laos to interdict Viet Cong supply lines into South Vietnam were well-guarded CIA secrets, and kept out of America's big media; after all, Laos was a separate country bordering on South Vietnam, a member of the United Nations and presumably protected from American aggression by Article 4 of the U.N. Charter.
Bale and Zahn meet soon after Bale is shot down, in captivity in Laos (the DVD's blurb says the POW camp is in northwestern South Vietnam, but Zahn says he thinks it's in Laos), and in less than a year they escape down a tributary to the Mekong River. The escape is reminiscent of The African Queen (regarding leaches among other things), while before the escape the POW camp scenes were reminiscent of The Bridge on the River Quai (regarding POW in-fighting and the "impenetrable forest" being the POW camp's walls).
But what impressed me most about Rescue Dawn were not its war and POW camp scenes, which occupy probably 98% of the movie's running time, but two after-Bale's-return-to-safety scenes. There is first, Bale's hospitalization, rest, and recovery -- interrupted by his interrogation by two laughably sinister men in black suits from the CIA. And then, this CIA interrogation is interrupted by several of Bale's shipmates, who clandestinely whisk him away from the hospital and the CIA clowns and return him to the Hornet. Once back on his ship, Bale is honored by all hands for his extraordinary courage and escape from captivity, but more like the hero who scored a high-school football team's conference-winning points than like a Navy pilot and officer. And at one point, the chubby master of ceremonies for Bale's shipboard reception says loudly to him: "You MUST believe in something." Nailing it for 21st century moviegoers, Bale replies with his school boy's modest grin: "I believe I could use a good steak."
And these two completely impossible scenes brought home to me just how unlike Vietnam are America's apparently unstoppable wars in 2011; how de-institutionalized is military heroism today; and how most Americans only tolerate our soldiers like they tolerate Wall Street Billionaires and the inmates of our prisons -- if they remain nameless and faceless. Yes. Goddamit. And how the very little in the larger scheme of things that was positive about soldier-ing in 1965 is gone, truly gone now the way of all flesh.