The true story of a US fighter pilot's gruelling experiences as a prisoner of war in Laos after being shot down during the Vietnam War, and his eventual escape. A dramatisation of director Werner Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

A familiar story is elevated to a new level.

After his acclaimed 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, German auteur Werner Herzog (Aguirre, The Wrath of God) turned once more to feature filmmaking, crafting a decidedly tense tale with the feature adaptation of his own 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly.

It’s the story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German-born US Navy pilot who, while on a bombing raid over Laos during the buildup to the Vietnam War in 1966, is shot down and captured by the Viet Cong. After enduring a variety of punishments, he’s tossed into a Laotian P.O.W camp, where he finds a small group of emaciated prisoners who’ve languished there for years. After a time, Dieter befriends the gentle Duane (Steve Zahn) and manages to foster some goodwill with the paranoid Gene (Jeremy Davies), who feels that Dengler’s talk of escape is a threat to the calm that they’ve maintained with the shirtless, machine-gun toting guards who seem a hair’s breadth away from attacking the prisoners. Remaining dogged to a fault, the survival instinct takes hold in Dengler, and he sets about preparing for his escape and his journey through the jungle to freedom.

This story well has been drawn from many times by lesser filmmakers, but Herzog’s eye for realism and un-formulaic pacing keeps the proceedings taut. The sure handed direction elicits intense performances from the cast: Davies is the embodiment of twitching paranoia and unpredictability as Gene, while Zahn, usually cast as the goofy sidekick, is revelatory as the despondent Duane. It’s the laser-focused intensity of Bale, however, that wholly elevates the film; his skeletal body and palpable desperation serves to create an utterly compelling protagonist for this emotionally wrenching story of the 'crazy-brave".

Filmink 4/5