Synopsis: A chronicle of the enthralling, against-all-odds story that transfixed the world in 2018: the daring rescue of twelve boys and their coach from deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand.
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: It already plays like a movie. An otherwise ordinary day in the summer of 2018 goes sideways quickly when a Northern Thailand youth soccer team made up of 12 boys and their coach venture into a cave and become trapped when it floods without much warning. With little hope of exiting on their own, the government first calls in their own reserve of divers to bring them out but sans the experience for such a lengthy and perilous dive it proves to be futile. Then an international team of skilled cave divers are flown in, working with local authorities to regroup and plan a way to locate the team and bring them out safely. All before the oncoming monsoon season submerges the caves fully, drowning them.
These events played out over 18 days as the world watched on the edge of their seats, unable to do anything but wait for news to come out of Thailand that the mission had failed, or the team had emerged from the caves with the assistance of the professionals. It’s no spoiler to report they survived, but at the expense of the life of one Thai Navy SEAL at the time and another who died from an infection contracted at the scene. So, approaching the new National Geogrpahic documentary The Rescue (in theaters now before debuting on Disney+ in December) one must ask what they hope to gain insight on if they already know of the events that transpired and its resolution.
There’s the challenge for recent Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi & Jimmy Chin who scaled to the highest heights with the incredible accomplishment of Free Solo. They are working with a different sort of beast here, stepping in to direct The Rescue after its original director Kevin Macdonald had to bow out to focus his time on 2021’s The Mauritanian. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel as completely innovative a creation as Free Solo or perhaps it is stymied by some legalese around the rights to the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue. It’s crazy, but Netflix owns the “life rights” to the boys/coach while NatGeo owns the rights to the story of the men who ran the rescue operation. Which is why you’ll see competing projects on the same topic arriving over the next few years.
The good news is that I think the directors were the right choice to jump this hurdle because they’re used to speaking to those that favor somewhat niche extreme sports. In much the same way they were able to bring out the different colors of free climber Alex Honnold, Vasarhelyi & Chin work similar magic in their interviews with a range of cave divers that admit to being outcasts in high school and last picked on the playground. Taking them back through those harrowing days in the caves when they didn’t know what they would initially find takes its toll and it doesn’t appear that the men have recounted it so much yet that it’s a rote memory. There are still residual effects of the experience they can’t hide and it’s all there for us to see.
Without having access to more info on the team trapped inside the cave, there’s often a little one-sidedness to the film which makes the first half a bit slow moving. It’s necessary to gives us an idea of the scope of just how far in they were so we know the distance the divers swam but it’s, how shall I say it?, uneventful. Only when we get to the actual rescue operation does the film find some footing but even that relies on recreated footage (that’s pawned off as real, more on that later) to bolster the immediacy of it. Regarding those recreations, it wouldn’t feel so strange if it wasn’t edited alongside actual footage from inside the cave. Without a disclaimer at the beginning that there was this mix, it feels like the viewer is being led slightly astray. Even the notice at the end is cleverly worded to further distance itself from actually saying much of it was staged.
The emotional beats of the film are there, though. You can’t help but get emotional when the various international representatives speak of the cultures and countries working together to save these lives, especially viewing it at a time when we all seem so divided. I wish a little more focus had been on the Thai man that died, but his widow speaks so eloquently about what it meant to him to be of service and how important it is to her to have been his wife that the full emotional weight of the loss hits home quite powerfully. I also appreciated there were additional insights offered into the lives of the divers, one who experienced a devastating loss in conjunction with a pivotal moment of celebration.
A narrative feature on the rescue at Tham Luang is being made (with Ron Howard supposedly directing…interesting) so this documentary isn’t the last word on the subject, but I suspect The Rescue will be the most in-depth piece on the people that risked their lives to save others. For a follow-up to their Academy Award winning film, Vasarhelyi & Chin show they will continue to be strong players in this category, and I won’t be surprised if we see them at the ceremony again because of this film. It’s a worthwhile watch and while it takes a bit to get moving, when it does begin to execute its mission it’s a breathless endeavor.