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REVIEW – “The Rescue”: Thai Cave Rescue Earns Cinematic Dues in Tense, Compelling Documentary

Our shared history is one based on experiences or events, luring people in, either to observe or participate. And when a significant event is intense, or compelling enough to stop the movement of the world in its tracks, that’s where history finds itself in the right state for revision. Such was the case in 2018 when the world slowed in response to a daring, life-altering, death-defying mission on the outskirts of rural Thailand. In The Rescue, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) have forever preserved the experiences of that event, and the perspectives of those present, not just to facilitate, but to defy the odds.

It seemed to happen without warning on that early summer’s day. While on a period of downtime between practice and a birthday party, 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their assistant coach went for a quick wander in the Tham Luang cave, only to find themselves trapped within at the mercy of heavy rainfall. Thus began a frantic search and rescue operation to retrieve those 13 humans confined to an oxygen-poor divvy of shore, dead center within the network of caves around an underground river.

While the initiative took many hands and required the cooperation of multiple nations, the film’s perspective, its noble focus is placed on two of its most experienced spearheads. For British-born cave divers, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, their work may be seen more as a hobby than lifesaving. But the results on past dives have impacted the communities they’ve visited. Tham Luang was no different for them, at least at first glance after being prompted by fellow Brit Vern Unsworth. No surprise, it was a challenge even they wouldn’t have seen coming.

Through their own collection of on-site footage, and that from their colleagues, a vivid, tension-rapt picture is painted to show that challenge, and the rulebook they had to rewrite on the fly. While the film credits three cinematographers, headlined by David Katznelson (Downton Abbey), much of their footage involved fresh interviews and surprisingly flawless recreations, sparing no expense. I might’ve been blind to any possible disconnects, distinguishing preexisting footage from what had to be built from the ground up, to fill the holes on the divers’ side of this story. Small gaps left behind knowing not much could be said on the lost boys’ side (Netflix is holding the rights to an eventual separate film covering that angle). At best, a minor quibble resolved by simply revolving around the intensity, the mere adventure.

Chin and Vasarhelyi really put their best effort into making this docu as human as possible, crafting a fervent action movie atmosphere by near accident. The footage available helps, as does a readily accessible backstory. The focal point often taps into the Thai mythology tied into that cave system (Nang Nom possesses the presence of a fictitious princess in the nearby villages), accompanied by a lesson in engineering, showing the complex nature of these interlinked limestone formations, and persistent reminders of Thailand’s overall brutal rainy season. Factors which these divers recognize as worrisome, if not detrimental. Move too slow in the retrieval process, the loss of life makes for an increasing inevitability.

That reality adds to a dwindling time crunch, with monsoon storms eliminating any pattern in predictability. And in turn, further pushing the divers to act fast. Place them in their element, and it’s like we’re invited to tag along, combating aquatic spaces considerably unsafe. Murky, silent, blinding, and claustrophobic with minimal air pockets. Even with an overqualified skillset, it’s impossible to fathom fatality as a non-issue. The odds are very much against Stanton and Volanthen, and their peers. For one, the social stigma of cave diving as a hobby sport is persistently under the microscope. More so with government officials who’s rather abandon the mission, drive off toward the embassy, and prepare cash settlements. Secondly, the threat of egos between nations and a lack of teamwork does cause a trifle of skittishness, only kept from ungluing by the partnerships forged in the final retrieval. It’s all fuel, motivation, to prove the naysayers, and perhaps the laws of science and nature, wrong. Whatever doubt is challenged by the will of human endeavor, justified appropriately while navigating in and out a field of treachery.

For all that doubt, whatever dynamics are left behind in bringing the facts of this gripping event, the purpose for why it needed to happen, and what filmmaking shortcuts were taken in posterity, cancel out the downsides. The Rescue gives us an overdue snapshot of what is very much possible when people put their collective thinking caps on. When the non-productive corners of our brain can be shut off long enough to generate solutions. And when the natural world proves how unforgivable it is. That’s why solutions like complex extraction can work.

Just as the real events sought to challenge what we as a species are capable of, Chai and Vasarhelyi easily challenge what a documentary can be. Not only does it entertain and charge the emotions without hesitation. The Rescue does just that little bit extra to compel the viewer to live without doubt, in confronting the unknown. These divers made it look difficult and suspenseful because it is. But therein dwells the glory; if nothing else, that’s merely the human spirit excelling. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)

The Rescue opens in wide release October 15; rated PG for thematic material involving peril, and some language; 107 minutes.