Though conventional Hollywood action films are most viewers’ go-to source for visceral entertainment, you really can’t beat a good documentary that thoroughly examines an incident involving extreme danger. Because it was produced by National Geographic, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s The Rescue is pretty wonkish in its detailed depiction of the rescue of 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand in 2018, but without explicitly drawing attention to the inherent drama of the incident, it’s harrowing in the most direct way, even when you know how it turned out due to the extensive coverage it attracted from world media. The main reason for this is that the rescue was considered impossible for the longest time, and the film explains why over multiple episodic sequences where various rescue experts, including Thai’s version of the Navy Seals who helped coordinate the operation, frankly expressed doubt that they could pull it off. Even U.S. Special Forces, whose assistance was also requested, didn’t provide much hope.
The two people who did have hope and, by extension, become our hosts through this complicated process, were British cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who discovered the boys deep in the cave system (they had apparently been exploring the caves as tourists when a flood occurred, trapping them). The discovery, however, was the easy part. What proved extraordinarily difficult was getting them out, since it would involve transporting them underwater through a series of very narrow passageways. Consequently, the directors and their crew could not film the rescue firsthand, and thus had to rely on Stanton, Volanthen and their crew to both record whatever they could and then describe afterwards how they did it, and the pair, fortunately, are articulate, succinct, and, most importantly, vivid in their sharing of the experience. These are men who absolutely love what they do, which is why they’re so good at it, and while their determination to save the boys sprang from their basic humanity, it was stimulated by their natural desire for challenge.
The drama is automatic: the waters weren’t going to subside anytime soon since monsoon season was starting, and the clock was ticking since oxygen in the cave was limited. The two divers had a bit of luck in preparing for the rescue when they discovered, almost by accident, a quartet of public workers also trapped in the cave but closer to the entrance. While trying to help them out of the cave some panicked, which prompted the rescuers to adopt a radical but necessary method to save the boys: make them unconscious before bringing them out. This is why the Seals and the Special Forces were enlisted, despite their initial doubts, because it required split-second timing. In addition, an Australian doctor was recruited to devise a special drug protocol to sedate the boys for something that had never been done before. The divers themselves had to administer these drugs, which meant they need training, too.
Throughout the movie, the pessimism that ruled the moment is offset by not just the amazing bravery of the rescue team, but also by the incredible ingenuity they used to address each problem as it arose. This is the kind of dramatic dynamic that fictional filmmakers can only imagine, a constant push-pull of hope and despair that keeps mounting. The Rescue is simultaneously exhausting and exhilirating.
In English and Thai. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670), Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015).
The Rescue home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2021 NGC Network US, LLC