The Rescue, 2021.
Directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin.
A frantic search and rescue mission begins when a boys’ soccer team becomes trapped deep inside a system of caves in Thailand.
Oscar-winning Free Solo filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin could very well add more gold statues to their mantlepiece next year with this nerve-wracking-yet-crowd-pleasing account of 2018’s Tham Luang cave rescue.
As received global coverage at the time, 12 young football players and their coach became trapped in a cave in Thailand due to heavy rainfall flooding their exit. Over the course of 16 days, the Thai authorities scrambled for a solution, calling upon the international community to lend their support, namely British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, whose cave-diving skills far outpaced those of even Thai Navy SEALs.
The Rescue stylishly yet soberly chronicles the situation which captured the world’s heart and attention three years ago, speaking to a wide variety of figures who were on the ground at the time, though focusing intently on Stanton, Volanthen, and the other expert divers they recruited to the cause.
Despite the dire straits of the scenario, there’s an undeniable humour to the interviews with these aloof Brits, largely loners to whom diving into a dark cave seems far more appealing than trying to play nicely with others. Stanton and Volanthen are lent extensive profiles, but given that this background ultimately informs their successful role in the cave rescue, it doesn’t ever begin to feel like human interest froth.
Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film crucially never loses sight of the existentially terrifying nature of this ordeal, where the rescuers themselves could very easily drown and their bodies never be recovered, let alone the 13 souls already stuck inside.
Even once sufficient nerve is established and bureaucratic red tape with the Thai government is cut through, the question arises – how the hell are they going to get these kids out? The Herculean technical feat of retrieving the boys from such a complex, flooded cave system, where severe weather conditions mean water can’t be pumped out fast enough, made it tough for many to believe they could even still be living.
Discovering that the kids were indeed alive – a deeply moving moment that was fortunately captured on film – was just the start of the logistically mind-boggling operation to free them. With oxygen levels in the cave dwindling, it was eventually resolved that, due to a child’s liability to panic – let alone an adult – it was necessary to anaesthetise them in order to be safely transported, one-by-one, out of the cave. Throw in the ticking clock of an incoming monsoon and to call the mission risky would be a colossal understatement.
Though there’s almost a flighty, men-on-a-mission vibe to the divers’ account of the rescue, there’s no hiding the enormous psychological toll it took on each of them, perhaps most of all Dr. Richard Harris. Harris, who was extremely reluctant to proceed with the drugging plan – and was even told he could be subject to the Thai prison system if things went wrong – says here that doing so “felt like euthanasia.” None of the rescue divers wanted to be the one whose “precious cargo” didn’t survive the journey, and the overwhelming relief felt with each child safely brought to the surface practically seeps through the screen.
As won’t surprise anyone who’s seen Vasarhelyi and Chin’s prior work, their new film has all the aesthetic merits of a cinematic feature film, melding terrifically engaging talking heads interviews with extensive footage recorded by various personnel who took part in the rescue, and also underwater reenactments shot in the UK’s Pinewood Studios.
Though recreations are always a bit of a risky bet in documentaries, there’s nothing even remotely tacky about them here; they blend perfectly into the overall style and help fill the gaps not captured by cameras during the actual rescue.
Even without any interviews from the trapped youngsters themselves – whose experiences are instead part of an upcoming Netflix series – The Rescue never really feels wanting for context or emotion. Beyond the irreverent interviews with the amusingly modest divers themselves, there’s a particularly heart-rending segment devoted to the widow of Saman Kunan, a Thai Navy SEAL who died during the rescue. It’d be easy for his story to get lost in the shuffle of such an epic, multi-stranded story, but the film pays firm tribute to his courageous sacrifice.
Vasarhelyi and Chin’s film is sure to leave a lump in the throat of even those who already know the intimate ins-and-outs of the story, in large part thanks to Emmy-winning editor Bob Eisenhardt’s phenomenal job cutting the picture for maximum visceral impact. The doc’s euphoric closing crescendo seals the deal that this is a majorly stirring piece of work sure to go down gangbusters with anyone interested in both the human and logistical story of how the rescue came to pass.
An emotional knockout, The Rescue is an alternately gut-wrenching and uplifting documentary about a feat of international collaboration which saved thirteen lives.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.