Documentary Review: The Rescue

The Rescue (2021)
Directors: E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

Three years ago, the world was captivated by the story of a Thai boys’ soccer team trapped deep in a cave. Their bizarre entrapment occurred when twelve boys and their coach went exploring the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, a local spot they knew well. They planned to stay underground for an hour or so, but when the cave was unexpectedly flooded, they found themselves with no choice but to burrow farther. Eventually they found respite on a small stone ledge 2.5 miles into cavern. It took twelve days to even find their location, and another week-and-a-half to figure out how to get them out, with the clock ticking as oxygen levels in the cave began to deplete. Their rescue was a risky enterprise, involving thousands of people, hundreds of government agencies, and cave divers from all over the world. People around the globe cheered when the children were eventually saved, and even though viewers will know the happy ending going in, The Rescue is still a riveting story of cross-cultural collaboration and human ingenuity. I was surprised by how fascinated I was, considering how much of the story I already knew.

At the center of The Rescue is a group of amateur cave divers who were flown in from England to assist with the rescue. They are a scrappy crew of scrawny-looking middle aged men whose cave diving was always an odd hobby that very few people understood or found appealing. In fact, cave diving seems to be something that goes against most innate human instincts. To dive deep underwater, where you can’t breathe, is difficult enough, but to do that while also navigating dark, cramped spaces, is beyond nerve-wracking. As with their previous documentary feature, Free Solo, husband-wife team E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are interested in the personality traits of people who are drawn to such extreme athletic feats. In the case of the cave divers, the men are characterized by a certain shyness and awkwardness. These aren’t people who took up diving in order to prove themselves or to test their physical and mental stamina. Instead they are drawn to cave diving for the level of concentration it forces upon them, as well as the perverse sense of freedom they feel in a confined space, far from ordinary life.

Vasarhelyi and Chin arrived at the rescue site early on, and were able to obtain some live footage and interviews from outside of the cave, but of course they could not film the rescue itself. In order to show the logistics of the operation, a complex undertaking that involved putting the boys under sedation, the filmmakers staged reenactments with the British diving team and with the Thai Navy seals, who set up a rescue base halfway through the cave to receive the boys. The re-enactments tend to be more illustrative than convincing; you never really feel that you are in the moment, though you do get a sense of the difficulty of their task and the extreme nature of underground diving. The most moving segments are the simple one-on-one interviews with the divers as they describe what they were thinking and feeling as they retrieved the children, in part because they are able to express the emotion they held back during the rescue.

The cave divers had a humility that I found very appealing. They weren’t flying in to save the day, and at one point, they even back down from the mission, feeling that it is impossible. The uncertainty of almost everyone involved with the rescue was notable. They were not at all confident that their efforts would be successful, but they knew they had to try to do something because the situation was so dire. In addition to the cave diving rescue, there was also a monumental effort to pump water from the cave and to block holes that allowed water to flood into the cave. Spiritual leaders were summoned to pray for the boys, and sent down prayer bracelets along with the food and water rations provided by the military. Deep within the cave, the boys’ coach, a former monk, led them in meditation exercises to calm their bodies and conserve energy. Every little thing helped. Even though the filmmakers do not overlay the film with any political message, I couldn’t help thinking of it as an allegory for the climate crisis. Like the children in the cave, human beings are in a desperate bind that will require creativity, international cooperation, and above all, a sense of urgency.

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