The Rescue

The Oscar-winning directors behind 'Free Solo' swap climbing peaks for diving deep, this time chronicling the rescue of 12 Thai schoolboys and their soccer coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 18, 2021


It isn't the first movie about the Tham Luang Nang Non cave incident to reach screens, thanks to the underwhelming The Cave. It won't be the last project to focus on the 12 Thai schoolboys and their soccer coach who were trapped in the Chiang Rai Province spot for 18 days back in 2018, either. Ron Howard (Hillbilly Elegy)-directed dramatisation Thirteen Lives hits cinemas next year, a Netflix limited series executive produced by In the Heights filmmaker John M Chu is also set to debut in 2022 and, to the surprise of no one, more are bound to follow. Still, The Rescue earns another worthy honour. The documentary isn't just an inspirational recounting of a miraculous effort that thwarted a potential tragedy, as told by the brave people who pulled off the feat, although it's certainly that. In addition, this gripping film falls into a genre that always needs more entries: celebrations of skilled people doing difficult things with precision, passion, persistence and prowess.

If documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have a niche, it's this. As co-directors, the married couple has now made three films, all valuing hard work, expertise and when the former leads not only to the latter, but to extraordinary achievements. With 2015 Sundance award-winner Meru, they documented Chin's efforts with two other climbers to scale Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas. Then came Oscar-winner Free Solo, the exceptional doco about Alex Honnold's quest to free-climb Yosemite National Park's El Capitan. The Rescue swaps clambering up for diving deep, and hones in on an event that captured international headlines as it happened, but still belongs in the same company as the duo's past two releases. Here, viewers start the film with an understanding of what happened thanks to all that non-stop news coverage, but finish it in profound awe of the talent, smarts, dedication and unflinching competence involved.

Vasarhelyi and Chin spotlight the divers who extricated Tham Luang's 13 unwilling inhabitants, aka the Wild Boars soccer team — and did so as the world watched, as hours became days and then weeks, and as monsoonal waters flooded the cave despite a desperate pumping initiative. Thai Navy SEALs initially attempted the task, yet struggled in the ten kilometres of sprawling and narrow tunnels. In fact, due to the murky water and the constant deluge from the fast-falling rain, they weren't able to get far. To assist, civilian hobbyists including Brits Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were brought in — experts in their field, and volunteers for the biggest diving quest of their lives. When their crew found the boys and their coach almost four kilometres from the mouth of the cave, they then faced another dilemma: how to get them back out alive.

With its ending already well-known, The Rescue starts at the beginning, letting those who were there talk through each step, and also weaving in footage from the rescue mission itself. No re-enactments — not the small amount The Rescue uses, as noted in its credits; not The Cave's awful docodrama approach; and not all the future dramatisations set to flow from Hollywood — can ever be as nerve-wracking as seeing this remarkable feat actually happen. That said, the film's interviews are also significant. While the on-the-ground and in-the-water clips show the immense level of skill at work and the enormous dangers faced, the accompanying discussions offer keen insights into the thought processes involved. And, they draw out Stanton, Volanthen and their team's distinctive personalities, ensuring that these heroes are always flesh and blood.

In all that chatter, much of the tension springs from one point: not just the logistics of extracting the kids and their coach from the cave, but the possibility of sedating them during the dive. The Rescue's most chilling moment comes from Australian anaesthetist and cave diver Richard Harris, who likens that option to euthanasia in his frank initial assessment — a goosebump-inducing comment, even though everyone watching knows that the boys were all rescued safely. Vasarhelyi and Chin make films about survival and endurance, too, and those notions thump away in The Rescue like a heartbeat. Still, as much as it pays tribute to the individual and collective efforts behind something astonishing, and its success, the film never forgets the stakes or cost, including the death of ex-Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan during an early attempt.

Enthralling, suspenseful and vivid — and with more time for the moral and ethical implications of the rescue than is ever likely to be committed to the screen elsewhere — this documentary has been made to emulate its subjects. Indeed, that precision, passion, persistence and prowess shines through again and again both on- and off-screen. The Rescue's meticulous splicing is particularly finessed, for instance, with editor Bob Eisenhardt (another Free Solo alum) maintaining the movie's pulsating sense of intensity while stitching together an array of talking-head interviews, plus that wealth of archival materials. The heartstring-tugging score by Daniel Pemberton (The Trial of the Chicago 7) isn't quite as convincing, however, but it's one of the film's rare weak links.

There is a gaping cavern at the heart of The Rescue, though, and one that's far wider than the rock shelf where the Wild Boars sheltered for almost three weeks. Those boys and their coach aren't among the movie's interviewees, and noticeably so. National Geographic, who produced the film, was only able to secure the rights to the divers' stories — with Netflix snapping them up for the soccer team. It leaves The Rescue absent key perspectives, but Vasarhelyi and Chin have filled that chasm savvily. Indeed, the documentary's edge-of-your-seat, ticking-clock, heart-in-your-throat tribute to skill, hard work and the global team of thousands that spanned Thais, Americans and Australians, too, mightn't have sported the same focus otherwise. Once more, the movie mimics the incident at its centre, turning sheer necessity into something stunning.


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