In 2018, the world was held rapt by the story of 12 young soccer players and their coach, who became trapped deep in a cave in Thailand, flooded by monsoon rains. But the enthralling discovery by divers that all 13 individuals were still alive deep underground 10 days after their disappearance comes less than halfway in to “The Rescue,” a new documentary from National Geographic and directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”). The fact is, locating the boys was only half the battle. As this enthralling film shows, the mission to remove them from the cave safely was one fraught with danger and uncertainty.
“The Rescue” is an exceptionally well-crafted film. Never-before-seen archival footage (a lot granted to the filmmakers by the wife of the admiral of the Thai Navy SEALs, who shot about 87 hours of film during the rescue) is flawlessly combined with staged reenactments of the divers that help demonstrate how they perform their craft. Animation and 3D models of the cave map help to visualize just how far down the boys were trapped, further heightening the realization of all it would take to rescue them. And Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi also make use of extensive interviews with the participants in the rescue, most of which were conducted over Zoom during the pandemic last year. They manage to obtain the perspective of many different parties, as in addition to the Thai Navy SEALs and the hundreds of Thai people who helped on the mission, individuals from other countries came together to assist as well, overcoming language and culture barriers to reach the common goal they all shared: saving these kids.
“The Rescue” does an especially great job telling the stories of the cave divers, and just how dangerous and intricate a craft it is. Unlike regular diving, in cave diving, there is no easy way out if the diver gets stuck, or runs out of air; they cannot simply resurface. We especially get to know the two divers who initially found the children alive over the course of the film: Rick Stanton, a retired firefighter who started diving as a hobby before later being called to aid in recovery missions around the world, and John Volanthen, an IT consultant who has been cave diving since he was a teenager, to the chagrin of his ever-supportive father, whom Volanthen discusses at length as being his major influence and inspiration. Stanton, meanwhile, was called to the scene after meeting and spending time with Amp Bangngoen, a nurse from the area where the boys went missing, during a recent holiday she took to the U.K. Not being someone who fully understands or has ever participated in a sort of extreme sport like this, these men and others in the film make their passion for their very dangerous hobby, and the compulsion to achieve what few others have, understandable.
The film also explores the moral implications of the many decisions the participants in the rescue had to make, especially once they found that the boys were alive and had to puzzle their way through getting them out. The lives of the boys were in danger, but also those of their rescuers, and the clock was ticking; in addition to everything else, the team had to move fast before more rains came and submerged the cave even further. The way that Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi present footage combined with interviews describing the participants’ feelings and what was happening in the moment provide a lot of insight and tension, and truly convey just what a huge risk everyone involved in this intricate rescue was taking. The final half hour is as thrilling as any narrative feature, even already knowing that this story has a happy ending.
And seeing that payoff is such a satisfying experience. Especially in the divisive year-and-a-half we’ve all been through, it’s inspiring to see so many people from all over the world come together not only to try and achieve something, but to succeed at that something. If you haven’t shed a tear or had goosebumps run up and down your arms by the end of “The Rescue,” then I really don’t know what to tell you. You may have followed this story on the news in real time back in 2018, but you don’t know the whole story. “The Rescue” succeeds at not only informing us of the details, but portraying the courage and heart of those behind them.
“The Rescue” opens in theaters on October 15. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG.