The Inside Story of Thailand’s Daring Cave Rescue
In June and July of 2018, the astonishing saga of the junior football team trapped in the caves at Tham Luang Nang Non in Thailand caught the world’s attention. Television news everywhere sent crews to cover the plight of the boys who had gone to explore the 10-kilometer cave networks before becoming trapped by a heavy monsoon downpour that flooded the entrance. Once the children had, miraculously, been apprehended, the question turned to the seemingly impossible question of rescuing them. This is the stage of the incident covered by a new film called, appropriately enough, The Rescue—a National Geographic-produced documentary focusing on the efforts of a motley crew of divers to reach and return the boys.
The Rescue is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the directors of the surprise hit Free Solo—another National Geographic joint—which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2019. That film was notable for its soaring visual quality, as it captured the forbidding majesty of Yosemite with a kinetic, highly charged fervor—and notable, too, for its close but ambivalent portrait of its subject, the rock-climber Alex Honnold, as he attempted to climb El Capitan without ropes. Re-enlisting the two directors for another story of life-or-death battle with the elements was a good shout—and yet, though Vasarhelyi and Chin tell the story with consummate skill and uncover some remarkable footage in the process, the film also feels hampered by an obvious lack of access, and a sense remains that the pair are less connected to their subject this time around.
Where Free Solo was about conquering heights, The Rescue is about braving depths—and this key difference in the film’s subjects comes with a couple of concomitant problems. Filmmaking is literally about capturing light, and mountains point toward the sun: part of Free Solo’s thrill was its blazing radiance. Caves, on the other hand, are dark and gloomy recesses hidden from the day, and much of The Rescue is therefore a murky affair: the question of how to get its action across in exciting visual terms, when much of the diving took place in stagnant morasses of dirty water and rocks, is never completely resolved. Another slight issue is in the personalities of mountaineers versus the personalities of potholers. Honnold’s mania to reach new heights powered the narrative of Free Solo—but, to be blunt, the sort of person who voluntarily spends their free time tightly sandwiched in a large puddle between thousands of meters of sedimentary rock makes for a rather less compelling subject.