Successfully following up on an Oscar-winning documentary is not an easy task, but directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) more than accomplish that with The Rescue, the tension-filled story of the rescue of 12 young soccer players, ages 10-16, and their coach trapped in the Tham Luang Nag Non cave in Northern Thailand in 2018. Though it was a retreat the boys have often used in the past, after heavy premature monsoon rains, they found themselves surrounded by water two miles from the cave entrance, facing long odds for survival. To capture the drama, the filmmakers relied on 87 hours of footage filmed by a Thai admiral’s wife, interviews with the rescue team, computer graphics, and the use of reenactments when it became too dangerous to film inside the cave.
Trained cave divers were recruited as well as Thai Navy Seals, U.S. Special Forces, Australian medical experts, a Thai nurse named “Amp” Bangngoen who helped as a translator, and thousands of volunteers to undertake the rescue in the cave’s claustrophobic, winding underground passageways. The challenge became even more real when divers discovered four pump workers trapped not far from the cave entrance and had to undertake a dangerous rescue that became a trial run for the later attempt to free the boys. With the cave rapidly filling with water, the conditions became so daunting that one volunteer — a former Thai Navy Seal, died from a lack of oxygen.
When members of the Seals concluded that they did not have the diving skill required for the rescue attempt, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two highly experienced British divers were called to Thailand. The inspiration of people of many backgrounds and training coming together from all over the world — including the U.S. and China — to engage in a joint undertaking captured the world’s attention. Paraphrasing the late poet George Eliot, “What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life, to strengthen each other, to be at one with each other in silent, unspeakable memories?”
The documentary not only depicts the bravery and determination of the divers, but offers a look into their personalities and goals, each with a compelling story. In one interview, one of the divers says that his dangerous hobby is “two parts ego, one part curiosity and one part a need to prove yourself.” The divers talk about how they had been “outsiders” all of their lives, always regarded as misfits and “nerds.” Fittingly, it was Stanton and Volanthen who first discovered the lost boys and their coach on a ledge two miles into the cave, where they had taken refuge after heavy rain submerged the route they had followed.
Finding the boys was only the beginning of the ordeal, however. How to get them out seemed an impossible task given the monsoon threat and the rapidly filling cave. Though thousands of gallons of water were drained from the cave, it was only after a daring proposal to bring the boys out (rejected as “insane” by Australian Doctor Richard Harris) was finally approved that a way forward could be seen. The result is a deeply moving experience that should be seen on the big screen to experience its full impact. Even a cliché-ridden closing song, dreamed up by well-meaning Oscar-baiters, cannot ruin the experience that is The Rescue.