The Inside Story of Thailand’s Daring Cave Rescue

In June and July of 2018, the astonishing saga of the junior football team trapped in the caves at Tham Luang Nang Non in Thailand caught the world’s attention. Television news everywhere sent crews to cover the plight of the boys who had gone to explore the 10-kilometer cave networks before becoming trapped by a heavy monsoon downpour that flooded the entrance. Once the children had, miraculously, been apprehended, the question turned to the seemingly impossible question of rescuing them. This is the stage of the incident covered by a new film called, appropriately enough, The Rescue—a National Geographic-produced documentary focusing on the efforts of a motley crew of divers to reach and return the boys.

The Rescue is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the directors of the surprise hit Free Solo—another National Geographic joint—which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2019. That film was notable for its soaring visual quality, as it captured the forbidding majesty of Yosemite with a kinetic, highly charged fervor—and notable, too, for its close but ambivalent portrait of its subject, the rock-climber Alex Honnold, as he attempted to climb El Capitan without ropes. Re-enlisting the two directors for another story of life-or-death battle with the elements was a good shout—and yet, though Vasarhelyi and Chin tell the story with consummate skill and uncover some remarkable footage in the process, the film also feels hampered by an obvious lack of access, and a sense remains that the pair are less connected to their subject this time around.

Where Free Solo was about conquering heights, The Rescue is about braving depths—and this key difference in the film’s subjects comes with a couple of concomitant problems. Filmmaking is literally about capturing light, and mountains point toward the sun: part of Free Solo’s thrill was its blazing radiance. Caves, on the other hand, are dark and gloomy recesses hidden from the day, and much of The Rescue is therefore a murky affair: the question of how to get its action across in exciting visual terms, when much of the diving took place in stagnant morasses of dirty water and rocks, is never completely resolved. Another slight issue is in the personalities of mountaineers versus the personalities of potholers. Honnold’s mania to reach new heights powered the narrative of Free Solo—but, to be blunt, the sort of person who voluntarily spends their free time tightly sandwiched in a large puddle between thousands of meters of sedimentary rock makes for a rather less compelling subject.

The Rescue is aware of this: the divers, featured in dispiritingly drab talking head segments, all tell stories of the type of introversion they share, of their detachment; none of them participated in team sports as a child. In a way, this gives the film a weirdly interesting quality: it’s true that there is a fascination in seeing how this unlikely Ocean’s Eleven of people called Vern and Jason and Rob got together to pull off an extraordinary mission, under the eyes of the world. It’s simply that these men are not especially engaging raconteurs, and the narrative palls when they have to tell it in their own words.

The other difficulty impeding The Rescue is that the filmmakers were not granted access to the boys for interviews: Netflix bested NatGeo in that respect, so Vasarhelyi and Chin have to content themselves with odd scraps of archival footage of the children when they were finally discovered alive, or of their inert bodies (the boys had to be knocked out with ketamine before being swum out to safety) being brought to the surface. This lack of access lends The Rescue a weird flavor, giving us one side of the story only—that of the rescuers. That means that what we have is almost entirely a logistical exercise focusing on the operation itself, which mostly shuns a wider investigation into the extraordinary psychological heft of the story. For instance, at one point in the film, the divers tell of successfully bringing the first four boys back to safety, and having to wait for the next day to get four more—but what of the children still inside the cave, who didn’t know if the mission had been successful, who slept on dank rocks while wondering if their friends had survived? That oversight is a clear problem in the film.

… but what of the children still inside the cave, who didn’t know if the mission had been successful, who slept on dank rocks while wondering if their friends had survived? That oversight is a clear problem in the film.

The most extraordinary footage seen here is still that of the boys’ wan and hopeful faces by torchlight, as seen on news channels everywhere, because it cuts to the metaphysics of who we are as humans, to our instinct for protection of others. Though the filmmakers are crafty, using reconstruction and some startling archive of the international rescue effort as well as illuminating graphics, they can’t live up to that heart-stopping image.

Not all is lost: the story of the rescue is so staggering that you would have to be a wretched filmmaker to mess it up, and Vasarhelyi and Chin are not that. The sheer drama of the events is well rendered here, as the odds stack up against the divers, with further rain hampering efforts and the divers occasionally giving up hope; individual instances of peril, such as when the diver Chris Jewell loses the rope connecting him to the outside world, or when a mask fails to fit the face of a smaller child, are neatly played for suspense, assisted by an atmospheric score from Daniel Pemberton. The film is illuminating, too, in outlining the magnitude of the operation, and how truly international it was.

In the main, The Rescue is a fine account of a unique story, but it doesn’t reach a further dimension of humanity in the way that Free Solo did. This film has the feel of a far more standard commission, whose want of means fated it to be a mostly surprise-free re-telling.

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