By Elias Savada.
Unfolding with military precision, enhanced by a steady, determined pacing….
We can be an ingenious species. When bad things happen, there are any number of special people who come up with solutions to seemingly unsolvable, life-threatening problems. The crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft is often called mankind’s greatest feat of improvised engineering. Last year, many were impressed that a Covid-19 vaccine was developed in just 10 months. Lots of people, especially those living in Southeast Asia, believe the life-saving heroics that liberated 12 boys from a flooded cave in 2018 is the best example of transformative technology. This latter feat plays out in The Rescue, a new documentary from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, a husband-wife team responsible for numerous award-winning films, including the Academy Award-winning Free Solo, the nail-biting profile of rock climber Alex Honnold. They’re also the filmmakers behind Meru, another breathless undertaking about living life to the extreme.
Their latest thrilling effort is more down to earth, and by earth, I mean dirty water and icky mud and complete darkness underground, rather than pushing against heavenly, sky-blue limits with incredible vistas. While the fly-on-the-mountain-wall antics by Vasarhelyi and Chin in their earlier outings have allowed their films to benefit from their immersion throughout the filmmaking process, with The Rescue, a difference approach was mandated by the type of story.
A post-soccer practice excursion by a dozen Thai schoolboys and their coach during the summer three years ago created a horrifying scenario. The popular Tham Luang cave system in the northern part of the country was an enticing area for these young teens, but they found themselves trapped by rising waters caused by the torrential monsoon rains. The world was transfixed by their plight, which grew grimmer with each passing day. Even when the group was eventually found two kilometers deep within the submerged prison, getting them to safety was far from assured.
By the time the directors came aboard this National Geographic production, the boys had already been saved, so this featurebecame a post-production chore, working with producer-editor Bob Eisenhardt, to craft a piece from all the news and associated footage, suspense it up with some very well executed re-creations (using the same people who came up with the rescue scheme), and toss in an array of talking heads. As the film neared completion, an additional 87 hours of GoPro and Thai Navy material was dumped on the filmmakers’ doorstep. No easy task to put all the dissimilar pieces in place, although it was safer than accompanying daredevils to the top of any mountain peak.
While The Rescue has the children’s soggy two-week saga as its core, their stories will be told elsewhere, including a dramatic retelling in a Netflix mini-series from Designated Survivorshowrunners Dana Ledoux Miller and Michael Russell Grimm.The Rescue approaches the account from its heroes’ angle. While there’s plenty of activity from the Royal Thai Navy SEALs andU.S. Special Forces, they weren’t very well trained as cave divers. As no sane or insane underwater photographer scurried alongside the few brave souls who crawled through the pitch-black space, reenactments shot in October 2020 fulfill the dramatic need for context.
The unlikely men that became the hope of this emotionally driven event include Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, and Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris. The first two are Brits with decades of the “hobby” diving experience required in this unfortunate event. Stanton, a retired firefighter, pushed the limits in just the ways the filmmakers admire, and his resourcefulness transfers easily to the screen. The younger Volanthen, an IT consultant, began his extracurricular cave exploration adventures as a young scout, and his assistance in the Thai rescue earned him a TIME magazine “Hero of the Year” award. The South Australian doctor, an enthusiastic diver and photographer, he was part of the medical staff that came up with the medical concoction that allowed the boys to be ferried to safety. Not an easy achievement consider they needed to be sedated, have open breathing passages, and be submerged in wet suit. This portion of the film is the most harrowing, for the viewer and the world that witnessed it back in 2018.
Unfolding with military precision, enhanced by a steady, determined pacing, and with an effective score by Daniel Pemberton (The Trial of the Chicago 7), you can’t help but get caught up in this true-life gamble, even if you know the outcome. As for Stanton and Volanthen, there’s a moment when they’re told that should their rescue effort end in failure Thai authorities might have easily imprisoned them. Maybe that gave them slight pause, but they still, thankfully, pushed on.
Need an intense adrenaline fix? The Rescue offers one helluvaunderwater ride.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).