In June 2018, a Thai youth football team found itself stranded deep inside a cave during monsoon season as rainwater flooded inside. An international effort led by the Thai Navy Seals and a crew of British divers led a 16-day search and rescue operation that successfully rescued all 13 boys. It would be easy to say their survival was nothing short of a miracle, and some on the ground, including the divers who ultimately brought the kids out, would agree. The Rescue, though, focuses on the lifetime of very specific skills developed by the four divers who led the expedition and the international team who helped them ultimately rescue the boys. It’s a thorough and captivating story, if a little straightforward in its telling.
The Rescue is the follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Free Solo from directing duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. To some extent, this film struggles to balance two parallel stories. The first is, of course, the rescue operation, including all of the buildup. It’s an exhaustive recount of the entire 16-day period. It feels like a lot of preamble, which isn’t to diminish the experience of the kids or their families, as well as the Thai government’s response.
It’s just that the other side of the documentary is far more interesting — an enrapturing look at the men who make a hobby out of something as dangerous as cave-diving and what kinds of skills they’ve developed to do so. Three of the divers — Richard Stanton, Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewell — all talk about their childhoods and what cave-diving means to them, and they also reflect on the experience of being called in to rescue the team without having any clear plan on how to do it. All three come across as humble and informative. This feels closer to the bread and butter of Vasarhelyi and Chin’s previous films, exploring the personalities who engage in extreme sports. What drives them? What sort of people are they?
Like in their previous films, Vasarhelyi and Chin photograph the divers going about their hobby with intimate, “you’re in the cave, too” detail. It’s much harder than when they were using drones to film Alex Honnold scaling sheer mountains in broad daylight for Free Solo, but their photography here does do a good job of conveying the dark claustrophobia of squeezing yourself into small openings in hopes something larger awaits you on the other side. Their skillful photography makes the final rescue sequences even more intense. Cave-diving, frankly, sounds pretty terrifying.
Although the first half is packed with exposition and setup, the second is devoted almost entirely to the painstaking rescue effort, and that’s where The Rescue really shines. The filmmakers used the footage shot by the divers of the soccer team in the cave. Most of the world saw that footage a few years ago, but it gains power here in the context of the story Chin and Vasarhelyi tell. The diving team debated multiple methods of rescuing the boys but ultimately had to settle on the risky plan of sedating each one and swimming them out individually through a kilometer-plus of submerged cave passages. The entire dive took three hours and included areas so tight that the divers had to push their companion through before them, hoping nothing would go wrong. This film really captures the fact that the rescue effort was an incredible feat of human skill and collaboration. While it may not be an essential watch, it’s a great resource for those interested in learning more about the team that carried it off.
An in-person screening will be held at 8 p.m. EDT on Sunday, Oct. 10 at Living Room Theaters.