If you were like me, in June 2018 you were aware of the attempted rescue of a group of trapped boys and their soccer coach in Thailand, but with so much breathless coverage, it was still kind of difficult to discern the details of what was happening. There was also the fear that this was all leading to a tragic conclusion where those trapped would be left to die. Thankfully (spoiler alert), the boys and their coach were saved, but exactly how it happened is powerfully captured in E. Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin’s new documentary The Rescue. The stranger-than-fiction story involves gathering a disparate group of hobbyists with a unique passion for cave diving to go on the world stage and participate in a longshot attempt. While a lesser film would devolve this into a white-savior trope, the humble protagonists convey that they were only “the spearhead” in a worldwide effort, and The Rescue uses this group of mild men to spin an incredible, thrilling narrative.
In June 2018, a soccer team comprised of boys ages 11 to 16 and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai due to rising rains that came earlier than expected that year. While the Thai Navy SEALs were called in, local British caver Vern Unsworth realized that this operation required a specific set of skills from experienced cave divers and had the government call in British Cave Rescue Council divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen. While there were tension between the UK and Thai divers, it became clear that Rick and John had the experience to make the trek not because the Navy SEALs were “bad” but simply because “jumping into a muddy hole”, as Rick puts it, is a specialized hobby that not many people in this world do. While Rick and John are able to find the trapped soccer team, the rescue becomes a race against time as the waters rise and oxygen in the cave starts to run out.
It’s fitting that a story about men who have to go great distances underwater is a breathless experience. The footage Vasarhelyi and Chin got here is nothing short of mind-blowing, especially when you consider that from the point of view of the divers, visibility in the cave was incredibly poor with the muddy water rushing towards them. As one diver puts it, the experience was like white-water rafting underwater, and the logistical problem—essentially how to swim upstream with water rushing in from the rains—helps illuminate why this rescue was so tricky. It’s not simply a matter of transporting children underwater—it’s doing it through dangerous terrain where anyone who was inexperienced with this kind of claustrophobia (so, you know, most people on Earth) could easily panic. Even knowing that the rescue was successful, I was on the edge of my seat wondering how they could possibly pull it off.
Oddly, the presence of these milquetoast cave divers provides a calming experience. There’s nothing particularly macho about Rick, John, and their fellow divers. By their own admission, these are men who grew up as outsiders. They were bullied as kids and in cave diving, they found a refuge of peace. While this operation gathered military men from around the world, it came down to a group of unassuming hobbyists, and their quiet manner helps ground the movie and give it necessary humanity. While one may wonder why the trapped boys and their coach weren’t interviewed, I can only assume it was for the sake of their privacy as well as their limited viewpoint since they were confined to one location for the duration of the operation.
But Vasarhelyi and Chin aren’t trying to pump up their lead subjects as the sole heroes of this mission. They constantly speak to others and emphasize why these cave divers had to be the perspective on this story—because they were really the only ones that could go in and make the rescue. That being said, Vasarhelyi and Chin never lose sight that this was a worldwide effort. The masks to put on the kids so they could breathe underwater came from the U.S. The anesthesiologist cave diver came from Australia and was the only one who knew how to possibly sedate the kids. The Thai Navy SEALS got their medic into where the soccer team was trapped to help monitor and help them as best he could. The kids’ coach helped keep the team calm. A lesser story would have ignored all the people that went into this mission, and while The Rescue has a focus, it never loses sight of the larger operation.
I feel like I’ll be hard-pressed to see a better thriller in 2021, not only because The Rescue has the benefit of being true, but because of how well it’s directed. Vasarhelyi and Chin never need to embellish or play up the drama because the drama is inherent in the story. Instead, they treat the audience like adults who want to understand the mechanics of cave diving, why this operation was so difficult, what went into it, and why it was a miracle but also the result of hard work, dedication, and people with particular skillsets coming together to do the incredible.
The Rescue is now in theaters.
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