“The Rescue” is first and foremost a riveting, immersive, stomach-in-your-throat documentary about the youth soccer team who were trapped deep within a flooded cave in Northern Thailand during the summer of 2018. “Free Solo” filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin — further cementing their reputation as rock stars of the extreme non-fiction cinema scene with their most absorbing and ingeniously crafted stress-fest to date — so intimately embed us with the ragtag team of cave divers who attempted the impossible that we feel worthy of a medal just for watching them do it.
And yet, the documentary’s ample suspense is never so overwhelming that it obscures this story’s poignant sentiment, nor is the selfless heroism on display so overwrought that it washes away the bittersweet aftertaste “The Rescue” leaves behind. Yes, Vasarhelyi and Chin have cobbled together a true life men-on-a-mission movie intense enough that even Michael Bay and Peter Berg should be able to recognize that no mega-budget dramatization could match up to it. But “The Rescue” ultimately isn’t as fraught a story of people coming together to save 13 strangers from certain death as it is one about why people can’t be moved to save 130 million strangers from a similar fate. It’s a portrait of incredible generosity that leaves behind a visceral understanding of where that generosity ends.
“The Rescue” begins the day after the Wild Boars soccer team and their twentysomething coach have become trapped in the waterlogged recesses of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave after monsoon season arrives a full month early. The kids are already stuck (and possibly already dead), the Thai Navy SEALs — trained only in open-water diving — are thwarted by a drowned labyrinth of mud and darkness at every turn, and how to reach the inner cavities of the cave system is an open question posed to the rest of the planet. The moment you see the people who answer it, you’ll know why this ordeal had to be made into a movie.
Retired firefighter Rick Stanton is an almost 60-year-old British man who vaguely resembles the Hound from “Game of Thrones,” and seems to possess equivalent social graces. But Stanton has an unusual hobby: He loves to cave-dive. Obsessively. He isn’t happy unless he’s swimming around a claustrophobic hellscape and exploring some of the only alien terrain left on Earth. It’s a wonder how Vasarhelyi and Chin found this guy before Werner Herzog could invent him. Stanton isn’t the only one of his kind, but he’s such a rare breed that he’s got all of the other expert cave-divers on speed dial. And when he learned of the soccer team trapped in Tham Luang, he didn’t hesitate to call them — starting with record-holding cave-diver (and IT consultant) John Volanthen, who becomes his stalwart right-hand man.
These two unlikely heroes, along with a handful of other people who are roped into the cause over the course of the movie, feel a personal responsibility to save these kids because they know they might be the only people in the world who are capable of getting the job done. Avengers references are made, but the way this team is assembled smacks more of “Armageddon” (especially when one of the cave-divers mentions that he ducked out of a stag party to catch his flight). Just to gild the lily a bit, we learn that Stanton fell in love with a Thai woman named Amp while she was on holiday in the U.K. — she returned home the day that Tham Luang flooded, and knew exactly who to call for help.
All of this makes for anther super entertaining multiplex documentary that has crossover potential written all over it (all the way down to the truly wretched inspirational song that plays over the closing credits in a transparent Oscar bid), but “The Rescue” doesn’t let its action movie urgency interfere with the seriousness of what’s at stake. The situation is already tinged with anxious dread by the time that Rick and Jonathan arrive, as hopes are fading that the Wild Boars might still be alive. Rain is slatting down across the entire cave system, causing the water levels to rise with every passing second. And our white bread heroes — who, similar to “Free Solo” protagonist Alex Honnold, have trouble communicating with other people as it is — find themselves lost in translation between the Royal Thai Navy and the U.S. Special Forces who’ve shown up for some extra muscle.
The blockbuster vibe continues through the film’s characterizations, which are involving enough in broad strokes, but considerably less detailed than the helpful 3D renderings that Vasarhelyi and Chin have commissioned of the cave network; disorientation may be a constant threat to the divers, but “The Rescue” does such a fine job of orienting us to its environs that we soon know the various cave chambers by number. Thanks to a combination of GoPro video, 87 hours of footage captured by a Thai admiral’s wife, and brilliant re-creations that were shot with the actual divers in a pitch-black England water tank during COVID and cut into the archival material with surgical precision, the two-week rescue effort seems as if it were staged and storyboarded with this eventual documentary in mind. Crucially however, Vasarhelyi and Chin also know their limits. You quickly cotton to the fact that some artifice must be involved, and yet not even the film’s most heart-stopping footage is so over the line that your brain completely disengages from the reality of what’s on screen.
That feat is all the more impressive considering the insanity of the plan that Dr. Richard Harris devises to get the kids out of the cave without drowning. You wouldn’t believe the particulars if I told you, but the film so vividly conveys why such a cockamamie scheme was necessary that you can’t help but go along with it in the moment. The crazy-like-a-fox genius that Harris brings to the table is a microcosm of a rescue effort that was only feasible because of the multitude of people involved, and Vasarhelyi and Chin are sure to linger on the growing swell of soldiers and other volunteers who show up to lend a hand.
This was a communal effort on a global scale, and while the size of the film’s ensemble cast forces “The Rescue” to make some unfortunate concessions along the way (the Thai perspective is sorely lacking from a story that never sheds its foreigner’s POV), the teamwork required to pull off this miracle is powerful tribute to what people are capable of when they put their minds together and feel personally responsible for solving a problem. Holding your breath through Vasarhelyi and Chin’s harrowing climax, it’s impossible not to think of all the people who might still be alive today if more of us could recognize that obligation when it called.
“The Rescue” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. National Geographic will release it in theaters later this year.