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(Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s The Rescue won the 2021 People’s Choice Award for Documentary at the  2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It’s in theaters now via National Geographic doc films. Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)

In June 2018, 12 boys and 1 adult are trapped in a cave in Thailand during the monsoon season. They are members of a soccer team, players and coach, and their rescue seems impossible, the rapidly rising waters forcing them deeper and deeper away from the entrance. Normally, the cave is closed for the worst of the rains, but this year the storms started earlier. Despite the willingness of everyone in the country to participate in a rescue, the kind of training required to successfully cave dive is highly specialized; very few people on the planet know how to do it. 

Fortunately, a British man living in Thailand, himself a caver, happens to know some folks back in England whose primary pastime is diving in caves. They respond to the call and immediately hop on a plane. Help is on the way as the clock ticks. Yet the actual rescue will require a lot more than just them. In their new documentary, appropriately titled The Rescue, husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) deliver a nail-biter of a story, showcasing the heroic efforts of everyone involved — foreign and Thai — in delivering the boys and their coach from certain death. Better than most fictional action-adventure films, it’s gripping stuff.

Using a combination of on-the-ground news footage, video shot during the many parts of the many rescue attempts, interviews with the participants, animated graphics, and reenactments, Vasarhelyi and Chin recreate the tension at the scene and the pressure to locate and extract the soccer team before the waters rise even more and drown everyone. It’s life and death all the way (and, in fact, a Thai diver does die, unfortunately). The directors make sure to include a great variety of voices and perspectives; though nothing might have happened without the efforts of the English, Australian and other foreign cave divers, the Thai rescuers also play a big role. If it ever took a village to get things done, this is case study number one.

The how and the why of the rescue beggars belief. Divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen are first to arrive from the U.K., and though they are able to eventually establish where the boys and their coach are located (very far down the cave network), they have no way to take them out, since the route is thousands of feet long and mostly underwater. It’s Australian doctor (and diver) Richard Harris who is able to provide the solution, though he does not like it one bit: to sedate the boys, put them in diving suits attached to oxygen tanks, and then pull them out, each experienced diver taking one at a time. No one is sure this will actually work — the risk of accidentally drowning the boys while they are unconscious is high — until it does. Meanwhile, local officials, families and the entire nation wait with bated breath. 

The tensions go beyond the logistics of the rescue. As one might expect, there are cultural conflicts, some motivated by patriotic pride and insecurities over foreign influence (the American military also becomes involved). But everyone’s better nature eventually triumphs, even as the monsoon storms return, and the rescue succeeds. As does the documentary, which provides a real-life thrill ride and a poignant drama all in one. There’s even a love story, as Stanton and a Thai nurse, Siriporn Bangngoen (aka “Amp”), renew an affair (we hope) that the bachelor had allowed to slack off. The movie is also a wonderful paean to the misfits of the world, which is how our cave divers see themselves, pursuing as they do a hobby that is odd to everyone but them. As Dr. Harris says at the end, about himself, “Last to be chosen for the cricket team, first for cave rescue.” Great final words. They are heroes, all.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

National Geographic Films; Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ; The Rescue documentary film review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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