Christian Bale did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn.
I might as well get the negative out of the way first. Bale plays Dieter Dengler as German born American citizen who has joined the air force. Bale plays the role with an American accent, which he does well, but the real Dengler still had a German accent. Now I try not to be overly punitive towards accents, as they shouldn't make or break a performance all on their own. Here it just happens to be a bit more noticeable since his German background is frequently mentioned and they even go so far as to call him the Kraut in the prison camp. It's somewhat distracting that he does not at all seem German given how it is mentioned, and an good German accent would helped to further distinguish Dieter from the other prisoners. With that out of the way, let's take a look at the real meat of his performance. The film opens with Dieter being briefed for his secretive combat mission in Laos along with his comrades. Although I do like the film a great deal there is something odd about these early scenes, and the final scenes, in that director Werner Herzog handles them in such a vastly different tone than the main section of the film.
These scenes seem from a different film, a very different kind of war movie, which is kinda lighthearted. It is hard to tell if Herzog is just uncomfortable out of the discomfort of the jungle, or this was purposefully done to show just how different the world can be depending on your situation. Either way Bale's performance is also fairly light here. Bale is not an actor with a natural charm, but in these scenes he makes Dieter just a likable enough guy as he jokes around and prepares for his mission along with his friends. The fun does not last very long though as Dieter is shot down during the mission and left to try to find his way back in the wilderness. This is where Bale excels as he portrays Dieter's trying to survive while attempting to avoid being captured by roaming patrols. Bale is terrific here in realizing the moment in his performance in terms of reflecting the way the crash shatters the certain confidence he had in the lighthearted scenes as he becomes a man bent on survival above else. Bale does very well to make every moment as he recovers from the crash, and attempts to find something feel genuine. He gives the needed truth to environment through his reactions to what is around him.
Dieter is quickly captured though leaving him at the hands of some cruel men, who almost use him as a prop for awhile. Bale's very good here as he brings a certain manic intensity to Dieter, and shows the fear of the man being unable to know what his captors are saying while being unable to communicate with them himself. There is one especially powerful moment where the guards casually take a pot shot at him, and Bale delivers the extreme terror that grips Dieter as he screams at them never to do that again. Eventually Dieter is asked to sign a propaganda statement against the United States. It's a relatively short scene, but one that Bale uses to further Dieter's character. As Dieter explains he was in no way looking for war Bale delivers this statement with certain exasperation. Not towards the present condition, but rather towards his past acknowledging the war torn country he was born in at the time. When he is pressed to sign though Dieter refuses and its a great moment for Bale. Bale does not make it an overly passionate statement against his captor, but rather quietly states his reasons and turns him down. Bale though in this matter of fact delivery though does reflect an earnest pride that Dieter has for his adopted country.
Eventually Dengler is brought to a camp with other prisoners, and Bale is rather affecting in just a short moment where he portrays such excitement at finally seeing a friendly face in another prisoner. After being in solitary briefly he is allowed to interact with the others, and I suppose I should not complain too much about the accent to distinguish Dieter from the others, since Bale does that so well with the rest of his performance. While the other men are all at one level or another of suffering, and some developing a bit of madness, Bale stands out by showing how Dieter is different. Dieter firstly is not nearly as beat up, although Bale does gradually develop his own wear as well. Bale though keeps an enthusiasm in Dieter as he plays it as Dieter never becomes oppressed by the camp, rather taking the condition of the other men as a motivation for his escape. Interestingly though Bale though kinda brings his own madness, but that of a different kind. His madness is that of the dreamer, as Bale shows Dieter's head still seems in the skies a bit, where he most wants to be out of anywhere, which seems to help inspire him to always be working towards his plan.
Bale sets Dieter aside from the others, finding well kinda the excitement of the escape as he figures one new idea to help initiate the plan. Bale though does not keep Dengler at a distance though and does naturally create a camaraderie with the other men particularly Duane (Steve Zahn). There's a warmth Bale realizes with him, and even a little with almost all of the other men, even one guard, in low key but poignant manner. The escape is a success, in terms of getting out of the camp, but it in many ways goes wrong as only Dieter and Duane go off together in the jungle. Bale is outstanding in these scenes as he also begins to lose heart and Bale plays it as though it starts to become harder for him to try to encourage Duane to go on. Bale is especially good whenever Dieter fails to flag down American helicopters as he shows just how devastated Dieter is every time they ignore him, and in one case even try to kill him. Both men are brought to the point that they take the risk and try to find help from villagers which costs Duane his life. In the final scenes until his rescue Bale is outstanding as he shows Dieter at his end. Although, as usual for Bale, he depicts Dieter physically at his end about as realistically as one probably can, more pivotal is his depiction of Dieter final mental state. Bale's stare is that of a man almost lost in his mind now as he goes through the motions of survival, having lost the enthusiasm of the escape, and is heartbreaking by realizing how the loss of Duane has left him. When he is rescued the film returns to that other tone, but I would not say Bale does. Bale does his best to sell the almost excessively inspirational ending. He certainly presents the overpowering relief and happiness fitting for a man who has gone through Dieter's ordeal, but the real power comes from Bale having brought Dieter through all of it from his crash, through every horror of the camp and the jungle, to his final deliverance.