The Rescue (National Geographic Documentary Films, NR)

On June 23, 2018, following soccer practice, twelve boys, none older than 16, went into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, accompanied by their assistant coach. There was nothing unusual about that: the boys often went exploring in the cave, and there was no reason why this day should have been different from any other. But it was: on this day, the seasonal monsoon rains arrived earlier than usual, rapidly raising the water level and trapping them in the cave.

The story was covered internationally, and it really was the perfect human interest story, with tension over the boys’ fates rising along with the level of the flood water. The cave system, over 6 miles long and with a complex structure, posed a number of challenges to any rescue effort, and waiting for the flood waters to recede was not an option since they had neither food nor warm clothing. When oxygen levels in the cave were discovered to have dropped below the level required for normal human functioning, that only made the need for a timely rescue more urgent. 

Given the level of news coverage this story received, it’s no spoiler to say that that the boys were rescued and recovered remarkably well. The story of this film is not that they survived, but how the rescue was carried out, and how the many obstacles facing the rescue team were overcome. An international team involving 10,000 people, including over 100 divers was involved in the effort to get the boys to safety, creating an extreme sports story with a human dimension that makes the perfect subject for the directing team of Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who won an Oscar for their previous documentary Free Solo.

Making The Rescue posed a somewhat different set of challenges than Free Solo, the most obvious being that Vasarhelyi and Chin were not present to film the rescue. You could be fooled into thinking they were however—they cleverly combine archival footage (including news coverage as well as footage shot by Thai Navy Seals during the rescue, some of which was captured on GoPros), re-enactments using the original rescue divers (which had the benefit of much better lighting than was actually available in the cave during the rescue), interviews with some of the principal divers and others involved in the rescue effort, and CGI renderings of the cave(based on a National Geographic survey conducted a few years earlier. The resulting documentary plays out as smoothly as a scripted Hollywood drama, so you almost have to remind yourself that some of the shots you are seeing could not possibly have been captured during the actual rescue—and that’s a real tribute to the skill of the filmmakers. 

Central to the successful rescue were the efforts of Richard Stanton and Jon Volanthen, middle-aged Englishmen  who practice cave diving as a hobby (although “hobby” doesn’t give them quite the credit they deserve for their skill and commitment to this project). Australian physician Dr. Richard Harris, another cave diver by avocation, was also a key player in the rescue: he reluctantly agreed to anesthetize the children while they were being towed to safety, to prevent them from panicking and possibly killing their rescuer as well as themselves. That fact, not immediately reported, was crucial to making the rescue possible, although it posed an additional challenge since it was possible that one of the anesthetized boys would stop breathing during the rescue process. Still, Harris said administering the necessary drugs “felt like euthanasia,” and something he certainly would not have agreed to had there been any viable alternative. 

There are many lessons to be drawn from The Rescue, among them the importance of international cooperation, the unexpected benefits that can come from people putting their time and effort into amassing knowledge and skills for which they have no commercial need, and the strength of seemingly ordinary children who survive, peaceably and while remaining in remarkably good spirits, challenges that would cause many adults to despair. On top of all that, The Rescue is a gripping story and a beautiful film that puts the directors in the running for a second Oscar. | Sarah Boslaugh

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