In 2018, the Tham Luang cave rescue was an ongoing news story across June and July as a school football team became trapped underground. The rainy season came early and trapped 12 children and a coach. Assumed dead, it took over 10 days before they were found alive and then the giant rescue attempt could begin. This feature-length documentary covers the story.
The disasters faced
Flooding and drowning, cave diving and all the problems that brings, international politics, injections and frankly, the press being a giant hindrance.
Adventuring in the Tham Luang caves before heading off to a birthday party, a junior football team and their coach get caught inside the caves when flooding starts. The caves are closed because of flooding at the end of the month but the rainy season had come early. The Tham Luang caves are one of the longest in Thailand and the group of 13 found themselves in a dry rock 2.5 miles inside the cave. With the Thai Navy Seals bringing in tons of manpower for the rescue, they soon realised that it is cave diving expertise that they require.
British cave diver Vern Unsworth was already on site as he was due to make a solo venture into the caves himself. Understanding this was going to require complex and experienced divers, he put the word out to some of his finest diver friends. John Volanthen and Richard Stanton were two whom answered the call and they, along with several other divers led the diving search. It wasn’t until day 10 that the team were found, lacking food, sanitary places and soon – oxygen. This forced the rescuers to think in all kinds of new ways as the monsoon season looked to resume.
The rescuers turned to Richard Harris, an Australian diver and doctor to help them pull off sedating the boys and then carrying them out through the cave system. Volanthen, Stanton, Harris, Craig Challen, Jason Mallinson, Chris Jewell and Jim Warny all carried the victims out. Amazingly no victims were killed but sadly two Thai Navy Seals died in rescue efforts and after-effects.
Why is it worth watching?
I’ve kept the story to a brief overview of events because knowing much more than that would potentially make The Rescue less compelling to watch. Jimmy Chin is at the helm of co-director and his experience with the excellent Meru and Free Solo shows here. The Rescue doesn’t go into the lives of the stranded boys at all, aside from media glimpses of their parents in total anguish at the cave mouth. Instead, he brings his extreme sports view and interviews the divers involved. What makes them dive? Why do they rescue people? What does it feel like to lose someone or pull out a body from underwater? How do you control fear? Then beyond that, we get into the actual rescue itself. The set up, how they too felt like things are a lost cause and how they dealt with the logistical and human drama of it all.
The Rescue uses primarily footage from rescuers and TV footage intercut with interviews. Behind the rescue, which involves 10,000 people (and it shows), there’s also a game of international politics. Thai Navy Seals don’t want middle-aged Brits doing the diving. The Brits don’t understand some of the spiritual morale that can be bestowed. Similarly, if a rescue goes wrong, they are warned that they could face jail time for it – meaning the stakes are at a premium.
All of this goes at quite a pace. So much so that I’d have watched a little longer for more of the logistical parts to be explained a little slower or in more detail. This is a great documentary, filmed through the lens of someone writing a love letter to cave diving. That might feel a bit odd or jarring to some viewers who came for a pure rescue mission. You might not want the divers’ backstory but they are all quite humble and shine a light on finding something where they can just be at peace. Apparently, this is because Netflix have the rights to the football team and families and so they weren’t able to interview them.
No effects are used as it’s all real footage but some scenes are reenacted by the divers themselves. These look far more cinematic and “clean” but they fit the mood and don’t feel out of place.
Without generosity you cannot be a volunteer.Waleeporn gunan, the wife of saman who lost his life in the rescue
Three memorable moments
- Seeing the boys being sedated and having their heads forced underwater in genuinely terrifying.
- The TV footage of the parents at the mouth of the cave shouting into the night for their children is heartwrenching.
- Hearing John Volanthen talk about how upset he was that he’d lost hope and how thankful he was to the Thai Navy Seals that they hadn’t.
The obligartory weird moment
It’s not weird but there are two moments (one is the End Credits) where Thai paintings are animated to explain some of Thai culture. It looks lovely but feels a bit at odds with the gritty realism of everything else in the documentary.
I feel like The Rescue could have been named The Rescuers. It focuses more on them and tells a compelling and tense story of how the Thai cave rescue took place. It shows that it can take thousands of people pulling together to make a rescue work and sometimes courage, skill and bravery from some self-identified misfits too.
Rating: 3 / 5 – Good
If you enjoyed The Rescue, you may also like…
- Meru – Mountain climbing with Jimmy Chin.
- The 33 – Not a flooded cave but a cave in. This time focusing on 33 workers trapped in a mine.
- Sanctum – Cave divers turned extreme escape movie with idiot baddies who you’ll love to hate.
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