It may be a side-effect of a world that seems thoroughly explored, but in our well-mapped topside lives, drenched in Wi-Fi and familiarity, the plight of miners, submariners or young soccer players trapped below the surface of the earth exerts an uncanny pull on the global imagination. This is the lure of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue,” a documentary recounting the 2018 Thailand cave rescue, though the film delivers best on a slightly different remit, pulling a straightforwardly gripping, rousing, triumph-against-the-odds narrative out of that narrow ancient chasm, without ever really spelunking into its more intriguing recesses.
Instead, this National Geographic film is an accessible tale of disparate nations and individuals uniting behind a common, noble goal. It is involving and moving and certain to prove at least as big a hit as the co-directors’ last doc, “Free Solo.” Indeed, that mountaineering thrill ride shares DNA with “The Rescue” in that whether from a great height or within a tight, waterlogged crawl space, both movies detail the psychology of men pursuing extreme sporting pastimes that are, as one of the divers here admits, a phobic’s idea of hell. Still, however nightmarish the notion of spending time in flooded fissures barely wide enough to fit through may be, one can’t help but wish that in its presentation, “The Rescue” shared a little more of that eccentric, intrepid spirit.
To be fair, the focus is advertised right there in the title. It is not about the experiences of the 12 boys (age 11 to 16) and their soccer coach, who became stranded two impassable kilometers into the cave system beneath the Doi Nang Non mountain range when the waters suddenly rose. The boys scarcely appear, and when they do they are hardly distinguishable from one another, just as their families, waiting at the cave mouth praying over smiling school photographs, remain similarly in the background. “The Rescue” is about the rescuers and the peculiar mentality of the dedicated cave diver. It also provides an expert, 3D-graphics-enhanced procedural recreation of the whole painstaking, perilous extraction process. The mechanics of the operation boggle the mind, and in presenting them so elegantly, Vasarhelyi and Chin offer more edge-of-your-seat drama than most thrillers — certainly enough to make the Hollywood version in the works from Ron Howard feel surplus to requirements before cameras have even rolled.
With no preliminary scene-setting, “The Rescue” begins when the boys have already been missing for a day and the media circus is ramping up. The Thai authorities quickly realize the task may be beyond the capabilities of their own navy SEALs, and draft in the vocal, local British expat Vernon Unsworth to consult. Unsworth (whose later court case relating to Elon Musk’s much-publicized attempts to assist is not covered here; nor is Musk so much as mentioned) recommends calling in the “world’s best cave divers”: the retired firefighter Rick Stanton and his frequent diving partner, John Volanthen, an I.T. consultant.
Noting Rick and John’s occupations is not just to add color. The film draws much from the tension between their middle-aged ordinary-joe-ness and the extraordinariness of their heroism. These diffident Brits, who relate their love of this arcane sport to their misfit natures (“‘Does not play well with others,’ is I think what you call it,” says Volanthen), will not only be the ones to locate the children, huddled on a ledge a two-and-a-half hour dive/crawl/slither away, but will also then spearhead the frankly lunatic plan to get them out. The scheme requires the support of the United States military, the Royal Thai Navy and the engineers behind a massive groundwater pumping operation, plus the intervention of a reluctant Australian doctor and a handpicked gang of divers from across Europe. And so the latter half plays like an unlikely superhero team-up, if you can imagine Thor asking his electrician boss for time off work, and Iron Man ducking out of a stag party to join in.
Vasarhelyi and Chin have meticulously assembled contemporary footage — much of it never seen before — alongside talking-head interviews and subtle re-enactments, spliced so seamlessly into the main flow that you scarcely register their artificiality. The presentation is so smooth (right until the blatant best-original-song-baiting dirge that plays over the closing credits) that it somewhat glosses over the film’s omissions and makes palatable its defiantly outsider perspective.
Aside from a pretty animation telling the story of the goddess after whom the mountain range is named and a few references to the rituals the locals perform to ensure the boys’ safe return, the only metaphysical element here is in the circle-of-life coincidences that the rescuers experience. A diver’s beloved relative dies at the precise moment he is carrying a boy back to life; a budding romance seems fated to ensure that cometh the hour, cometh the exactly right man. Mostly, though, there is a laudable absence of sentimentality, which means the emotive moments really land, such as when Rick first finds the children, all alive and alert. It’s an eventuality so incredibly unlikely that all he can do is repeat the single word “believe,” and whether it’s an exhortation to accept the possibility of miracles or to have faith in the power of human perseverance is no matter: after “The Rescue,” believe, you will.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.
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