In 2018, a youth soccer team in Thailand got trapped deep inside a mountain cave after heavy rains flooded the tunnels and passages that they used to get in, an early storm that signaled the onset of monsoon season. In the nearly three weeks that followed, a massive international effort was undertaken to get those kids and their coach safely out, and it was not without consequence, as one of the rescue workers died in the attempt.
It was one of those rare moments where pretty much everyone in the world came together in common cause. Governments, militaries, engineers, divers, scientists, and regular people of good will all united and set aside whatever differences they might have had for the singular goal of saving innocent lives. And it worked. Seemingly accomplishing the impossible, all of the players and their coach were safely evacuated, a triumph of human endeavor and collective empathy.
It’s the stuff of legends, and more often than not, of Hollywood spectacle. But rather than wait for a blockbuster epic to be produced by the studio machine, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who helmed the Oscar-winning Free Solo a few years back, have given us a gripping documentary in the form of The Rescue. Using interviews, comprehensive computer models and diagrams, and a few recreations to supplement the footage from the divers themselves (and using the people involved, no actors or stand-ins), the film gives audiences the truly unbelievable story and drama without any of the contrived big budget tropes or polishes.
The story is expertly crafted throughout, incorporating news footage and interviews with contextual information about the local area and its customs, including the mythology of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave and mountain as a sleeping goddess, mourning the loss of her lover. A local clergyman is even brought in to aid in prayers, prophesizing that the boys will be saved, but at the cost of two lives, which is paid off in coincidental fashion. It’s one of the high points of the movie, because a full-throated Hollywood film would likely attempt to paint the priest’s words as actual divine intervention, whereas this documentary allows us to draw whatever conclusions we wish, even if there is no conclusion at all to draw.
The film has all the earmarks of a dramatic saga, with the international cave divers sharing anecdotes and footage of their passion, which serves as character development. There are numerous meetings and strategy sessions, along with motivational speeches, all of which would be front and center in a fictional film’s more inspirational moments, aided by a swelling score from Oscar-nominated composer Daniel Pemberton. Aloe Blacc even contributes an original song for the credits. An Australian doctor who helps devise the experimental — and highly dangerous — sedation protocols to anesthetize the team for their extraction describes in painstaking detail how improbable and arguably unethical their course of action ends up being. You can easily see a melodramatic sympathizer grappling with the dilemma, weighing the risks to the kids’ lives against the ticking clock of their oxygen running out or the cave flooding entirely, all while volunteers and engineers from around the world come together in a massive effort to divert and siphon off the water to give the divers even a chance.
It’s compelling in the extreme, especially when you keep reminding yourself of the fact that this all happened. We all witnessed this basically in real time, and not that long ago. It’s still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. To see the ins and outs of how it all came together would be intriguing by itself. But the fact that this actually appears to have played out in such fantastic fashion is all the more astonishing. Watching a diver come up for air and turn his body camera to the huddled group in the darkness, only a small light on his suit illuminating the deep earth, is something that Steven Spielberg or Guillermo del Toro would gush over. And it all took place without any interference or storyboarding. That’s just how it happened.
Now, there are a few scenes that were recreated out of necessity, as I mentioned earlier. But even then, like United 93, the actual people involved did the recreation to maintain the verisimilitude. It’s possible some of the rescuers may have embellished their recollection of events, but even if they did, Vasarhelyi and Chin spend so much time establishing the stakes and the credibility of all involved that you can honestly believe it when one diver loses his line and gets lost, or that another is delayed long enough to put their oxygen supply in jeopardy, or when a mask proves too big for the last boy, forcing them to improvise in order to create an airtight seal. All of these moments would be shoehorned in (plus a few more) to create suspense in the final act of a dramatic film, to the point that it might come off cheesy. But since we know the outcome, instead it invests us further, because we know they escaped, but what we don’t know is how.
If there’s one issue to be had, it’s that we never get interviews with the team itself. The Wild Boars end up becoming spectators to their own story, which may come off as shortsighted or underserving their harrowing plight. Thankfully, there’s a context for this which clears up any confusion. The documentary was distributed by National Geographic, which was unfortunately only able to secure the rights to the divers’ stories, not the team’s. Their story rights had already been secured by Netflix, which precluded them from participating. As such, if there ever is a second documentary or a dramatized fictional film based on their experience, you can take a pretty good guess as to where it’ll premiere.
But setting that aside, this is still a masterwork. You get all the feel of an edge-of-your-seat prestige drama without any of the glitz and glamor, and in fact the movie is actually made better without it. The fact that the story unfolded as a Hollywood blockbuster might have done, without any of its influence or editorial license, makes it all the more amazing, and it was already pretty spectacular just from what we got from news reports as it was happening, proving once again that the truth is stranger — and more exciting — than fiction. Vasarhelyi and Chin have already won over the Academy with an intimate look at how a mountain can be conquered from the outside. Now they’ve outdone themselves showing how the world came together to beat one from the inside.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you have a fondness for spelunking? What real-world situations in your life would make a good movie? Let me know!