Hollywood superhero and disaster movies pale in comparison to the thrills offered by the new documentary directed by the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Relating the story of the heroic efforts of an international team of rescuers to save the members of a teenage soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, The Rescue keeps you on the edge of your seat for every minute, even if you already know the outcome. The doc, premiering at the Telluride Film Festival, proves even more compelling than the duo’s acclaimed efforts Meru and the Oscar-winning Free Solo.
The Rescue chronicles the weeks-long 2018 mission that riveted the world after 12 boys, ages 11 to 16, in the Wild Boars soccer team and their 25-year-old coach became trapped deep within in the miles-long Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand during an after-practice recreational excursion. Sudden heavy rains had flooded portions of the cave, trapping them deep within, and their situation seemed dire.
A true-life adventure film that puts Hollywood to shame.
Thai Navy SEALs attempted to retrieve the boys, but lacked the training and equipment to successfully pull it off. On the advice of British expat Vern Unsworth, who lived in the area and was known as “the crazy foreign caver,” the government reached out to cave divers around the world to join the operation.
Enter Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two unassuming middle-aged Brits who had spent much of their lives pursuing the extreme sport. Both men, along with other international experts, flew to Thailand to lend their expertise. Upon their initial venture into the cave, Stanton and Volanthen found four pump workers who weren’t even known to be trapped. When they attempted to bring them out, the novice divers panicked and nearly drowned. And they had to travel underwater for only a few minutes, whereas the trapped boys were some two and a half hours away.
The documentary adds emotional texture to the tale, without diluting the narrative momentum, by providing extensive interviews with both men, as well as other volunteers, who provide insight about their passion for cave diving. Along with the expected bromides (“the purest adventure you can have”), the Brits both say that they were terrible at team sports and were frequently picked on in school. ” ‘Doesn’t play well with others’ is the phrase you’re looking for,” Volanthen jokes.
At the eight-day mark, several of the volunteers were ready to give up, steeling themselves for the possibility that they weren’t going to rescue the children but rather retrieve their dead bodies. But they kept trying, and two days later they miraculously found the group, all of them alive and in amazingly good spirits. The footage of the divers encountering the trapped boys, their young faces beaming with exultation and hope, is extraordinary.
Finding them, it turns out, was the easy part. How to get them out of the submerged cave alive seemed a logistical impossibility. If grown men were barely able to move underwater for a few minutes, how would the adolescents survive an hours-long journey? The conditions were so hazardous that one volunteer, a former Thai Navy SEAL, died from the dangerously low oxygen levels in the cave’s non-submerged portions. Meanwhile, more monsoon rains were threatening to hit the area, which would have flooded the cave entirely.
The manner in which the rescue was eventually achieved won’t be revealed here, under the assumption that you might be unfamiliar with the story or forgot how it turned out. Suffice it to say that the method employed would have seemed utterly implausible even in The Poseidon Adventure.
The filmmakers — superbly incorporating a combination of stunning archival footage (much of it previously unseen), dramatic reenactments and interviews with the principal figures — present the harrowing tale in riveting nail-biting fashion, leavened by welcome doses of mordant humor from the incredibly brave volunteers. The film gives a vital human dimension to a story you’ve probably encountered only in news broadcasts. By the time it reaches its moving conclusion, you’ll be overcome with emotion.