Perhaps the last event to bring people all over the world together as one occurred between June 23 and July 10, 2018, when 12 members of a boys’ soccer team and their coach were trapped in the Tham Luang cave, in northern Thailand. The monsoon had arrived early, and heavy rain flooded parts of the 6½-mile-long serpentine cavern, stranding the group inside. What happened next is the subject of E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue.” Intense and suspenseful, the film does for claustrophobics what the filmmakers’ Oscar-winning “Free Solo” (2018), about scaling El Capitan, does for those afraid of heights.
The initial rescue campaign is confused and chaotic. Not only was the cave filling with water but no one knew where the boys and their coach were or even if they were still alive. The authorities called in Royal Thai Navy SEALs (“If it’s water,” a general explains matter-of-factly if irrelevantly, “they bring in the SEALs”). But despite their tenacity and courage (one died from oxygen deprivation during the operation, and another afterward from an infection), the elite unit was unable to locate the lost boys. Thousands of other Thais and volunteers from around the world joined in, including US Special Forces, to no avail. They had neither the proper equipment nor the expertise. But then who did?
Enter the amateur cave-divers of Britain, a group obsessed with the dangerous and sometimes miserable pastime of exploring flooded, labyrinthine, and constricted underground chambers (a scene of a diver squeezing himself through a mucky crevice that looks as narrow as a mail slot will give you the heebie-jeebies). Vasarhelyi and Chin focus on the backstories and motivations of these media-shy heroes. Many of them took up this extreme sport as a way of proving themselves after enduring ostracism and bullying growing up. Acknowledging that most consider their pastime odd and even nightmarish, they describe how it offers them serenity, a refuge from bad memories and the pressures of ordinary life. “Once I get underwater,” says one, “all that disappears.”
At first the Thai SEALs denied access to the cave to these unlikely rescuers, some long in the tooth and equipped with jerry-rigged gear. But as days passed and their own efforts proved fruitless, the SEALS allowed the newcomers to do what they could.
They battled with hazardous obstacles and made slow progress with no luck and in a dark moment they gave up hope. They figured that the boys couldn’t have survived after so long in such circumstances, and that they should pack up and leave. But the two lead divers, Rick Stanton and John Volanthan, decided to give it one more go. They penetrated into an uninvestigated cavern and immediately smelled a foul odor. Suspecting the worst, that they had come across the decomposing remains of the lost party, they instead found them all alive and huddled in a recess, gaunt from hunger but in good spirits, the stench coming from two weeks of accumulated human waste.
Volanthan filmed the moment, his light picking up the spectral figures which looked like lost souls in the Inferno, and the scene was broadcast via a Wi-Fi hookup to the world. Overcome by emotion, Volanthan can be heard saying “Believe.” He was not speaking to the kids, he recalls, but was “telling myself that this is real.”
At this point even the most hard-hearted of viewers might fight back a tear. Such compelling sequences, some gleaned from international news feeds and local Thai footage and many culled from a cache of 87 hours of previously unseen footage released to the filmmakers by the Thai government, add vivid immediacy.
To supplement the actual footage, the filmmakers shot reenactments with the rescue participants in a water tank in Britain’s Pinewood Studios, a technique that enhances the dramatic tension and fabricates realism but at the expense of authenticity. Reenactments have become increasingly common in documentaries, often seamlessly interwoven with actual footage, as is the case here, and their usage presents both possibilities and problems for the genre.
Meanwhile, back in the cave, finding the boys and their coach proved the easy part of the operation. The hard part was how to get them out, hauling them through 1½ miles of narrow, flooded passageways. The divers came up with a controversial solution, but it was a desperate, dangerous gamble.
The details of the rescue and the experiences of the motley band of amateur divers who helped bring it about are engrossing, exciting, and affecting. But what about those who were rescued? All we get are glimpses of them, because unfortunately the filmmakers didn’t have the rights to their stories. Nonetheless, watching them as they are taken one by one from the cave to the cheers of the thousands who made it possible and of the millions witnessing it around the world is a reminder that good will and unified action can still make miracles happen.
“The Rescue” screens at the AMC Boston Common Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre, beginning Oct. 15. Vasarhelyi will appear in person at the Coolidge on Oct. 16 after the 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. screenings in a Q&A moderated by Harvard professor Robb Moss. For information on her appearance, go to coolidge.org/. For information on the film, go to films.nationalgeographic.com/the-rescue.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.