You can probably remember where you were when the news broke about the Tham Luang Nang Non cave disaster in June 2018. Twelve members of a junior football team aged 11 to 16, plus their assistant coach, had ended up trapped in a flooded cave with no way out. For 18 days, the world watched with bated breath as a crew of Thai soldiers, international rescue workers, and hobbyist cave divers fought against the odds to save every single one of them. It was the most dramatic human-interest story of the season, concluding with a heart-warming display of human ingenuity. Of course, it had to be made into a movie. Several, actually. The Rescue is the documentary version, brought to us by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the Oscar-winning duo behind Free Solo.
Dramatic rescues of this kind have long been curious sources of worldwide inspirational entertainment, from the 2010 Chile mining disaster to baby Jessica in the well. In an era of 24-hour media coverage, cultural sensationalism, and good old-fashioned morbidity, such stories are catnip. This phenomenon has already been scathingly satirized, way back in 1951 thanks to Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, but mostly, such narratives are utilized for some uncomplicated cheeriness (coincidentally, we’re actually getting a film adaptation of the Tham Luang incident courtesy of… er, Ron Howard. It was originally going to be a Pureflix title. I think that speaks for itself.)
Chin and Vasarhelyi are, mercifully, not that kind of filmmaking duo. Free Solo may have been a dizzyingly shot tale of human endeavor but it was also a cautionary tale of ego and the ethics of turning such a dangerous act into entertainment. That film also benefitted from the directors’ mountaineering experiences and combining that with technical prowess. This time around, however, neither of them were on the scene to document the event as it unfolded. Instead, they’re working with dozens of hours of footage shot by others, plus new interviews and some stellar recreations of the tenser moments in the smothering darkness of the caves. It can’t help but impact the film in a way that made me yearn for more of what Free Solo offered, but sometimes, the story is good enough to sustain itself.
Make no mistake, the story here is undoubtedly gripping. How could it not be? If it hadn’t happened, Ron Howard would still have planned an Oscar-baity movie with that exact plot for a holiday season 2022 release. The main focus here is the cave divers, a disparate gang of highly skilled men who indulge in this highly dangerous hobby in-between looking after their kids and working in offices. Their de facto leader is Rick Stanton, a perfectly normal British guy who just so happens to be one of the greatest in his field, a man who finds joy in swimming through the tightest of spots underwater with no natural sunlight or easy escape in sight. He and others are flown to Thailand (first class, as they note with a touch of relatable awe) to help figure out a way to save the kids. The Thai SEALs and rescue services lack the required skills, which seems to inspire a twinge of jealousy that the film quickly skates past.
As the media gathers in the country and the kids become a cause celebre for various international armies and experts, The Rescue smartly focuses on the task at hand rather than the media furor. We get a sense of the scale of the story, which is contrasted with the likes of Stanton trying to keep their heads down and find a solution while the clock ticks and monsoon season approaches. There’s probably a whole other documentary to be made about how this story became obsessed over, which would make for far more stomach-churning results.
The process is fascinating, with the divers throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks and trying to track a route to the unknown while water levels rise. Underwater footage, both captured at the time and recreated in agonizing detail, is appropriately claustrophobic, giving a palpable sense of how near impossible this rescue truly was. The divers were forced to snake through spaces barely able to fit their lithe bodies, searching for something in an unknown location, all while their oxygen tanks slowly depleted. You may know how this story ends but that doesn’t dilute any of the tension these scenes elicit. The moment where the divers see the kids for the first time is truly ebullient, the kind of relief and sincerity that simply can’t be faked.
The story being told here is worthy and well-executed thanks to the directors’ comfort with this material, but it’s not the full story and that does change things. We see interviews with divers, soldiers, officials, and more, but none of the kids or their families. The rights to their story belong to Netflix, which is making a mini-series about their struggle with Jon M. Chu in the director’s chair. National Geographic ‘only’ got the divers’ rights, and yes, that does make this entire thing feel very uncomfortable.
Still, the narrative cannot help but feel incomplete because of it. I truly appreciate that Chin and Vasarhelyi avoided most of the potential pitfalls of taking on this story, especially when it seemed quite clear what kind of narrative would sell to the highest bidders. They don’t leer over injuries or sacrifice human trauma in favor of cheap thrills. They keep the media drama to the side and stridently prioritize the nitty-gritty of the rescue itself over those Hollywood-primed moments of inspiration or emotional low points, of which there were many. Part of that obligation is fulfilled by not pushing these kids in front of a camera and demanding they recount the worst 18 days of their lives. They may have had no other choice but they accidentally fulfill some earnest intentions as a result. But their stories matter and without them, something is obviously missing. It’s a tough balance to nail, for sure, and I can name more than a few directors who wouldn’t have done this with half the empathy and focus of Chin and Vasarhelyi. They’re probably the best choice for a documentary like this, given the circumstances, and they do well with what they have. The question is, though, is what they have enough? Can anyone really tell the full story when everything has been divided up among an array of platforms with their own ideas and intentions?
The Rescue is in cinemas now.
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Header Image Source: Disney // National Geographic