We only have one shot at this.
It takes a tragedy to realize it themselves, but the only certainty throughout the entire Tham Luang cave ordeal (where twelve boys and their soccer coach were trapped for eighteen days as the area’s monsoon season started a month early) is that the Thai Navy SEALs weren’t equipped to handle the rescue operation for which they were tasked. Possessing the necessary courage to belief for success isn’t enough when confronting a scenario outside your expertise. Diving for stealth and conducting rescues at sea isn’t the same as going into pitch black, muddy waters for hours at a time. The latter demands different equipment, a different mentality, and a steely confidence that only comes from experience. Vern Unsworth realized this truth and used the British embassy to call reinforcements.
What happens if Vern wasn’t there to understand the logistical issues at-hand? We thankfully will never know. Cave diving “hobbyists” Rick Stanton and John Volanthen boarded their plane, flew to Thailand, and readied themselves to do what they’ve been doing for decades as volunteers: go where no one else can. And as the harrowing stories told by those who lived it (directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin compile an expansive cast of first-hand accounts in multiple languages) and the reenactments performed by the heroes who pulled it off explain, the margin of error was so low that calling what transpired a miracle isn’t the slightest bit hyperbolic. It took coincidence, the supernatural, and scientific risk to attempt the impossible. And success took a whole lot of luck.
The Rescue was destined for its own success considering how poignant, inspiring, and hopeful the tale proves. Everyone the world over who followed what was happening on the news was captivated by the drama and elated by the conclusion despite only having short clips filmed in the darkness and unsubstantiated claims made by the journalists watching it unfold with them to understand the challenge presented. If you’ve ever seen Vasarhelyi and Chin’s previous works (Meru and Free Solo), however, you know that telling what happened wouldn’t be enough. They’d need to show it too just like they have before by hanging off cliff faces with cameras. And since the event occurred in 2018, doing so meant putting Rick, John, and the other divers back in the water.
Reenactments aren’t always the best route to take for this kind of subject matter since they usually lack the gravitas needed to feel as though you’re there as it’s happening. It is when you’re talking about a cave system that’s hundreds of meters in length and almost completely flooded besides a couple caverns and a handful of air pockets. All we need is a sense of the claustrophobia and sensory deprivation to comprehend the danger. If we can barely see the diver swimming along their roped lifeline to safety with the additional light that comes from a camera crew documenting the journey, it’s no longer difficult to imagine the disorientation they must have felt being alone in silence. These sequences prove the perfect segue to the original videos.
They fill the gaps and are never leaned on too hard, enhancing what’s real with additional context just like the computer-generated maps used to approximate distance and hazards. The camera is so close to the action that we’re pretty much only receiving quick fly-bys to illustrate the narrators’ descriptions and get us back to the surface whether outside the cave to discuss the next day’s plans or inside to see the emaciated boys smiling in the belief that everything was going to turn out okay. It’s about getting our hearts pumping in ways the words simply cannot do justice because, reenactments or not, these men are doing exactly what they did three years ago. The stakes may not be as high, but the danger for them remains.
That’s a big part of what The Rescue captures. Beyond showing what went into getting those boys out—a conclusion most know going in—Vasarhelyi and Chin are documenting the Herculean effort that went into even believing it could be done. It’s about two middle-aged Brits who’ve always been looked at strangely when discussing their hobby that flew thousands of miles to do their moral duty as two of only a handful of divers could. It’s about multiple governments combining their resources to have the manpower and equipment necessary to facilitate an enormously complex mission (two hundred people were needed to move each boy’s body from their resurfacing point to the cave entrance alone). And it’s about the sacrifices made to ensure the chance of victory survived.
This last part moves beyond just death too (Saman Kunan is remembered in images and by his wife’s account while Beirut Pakbara, who later died of a blood infection contracted during the rescue, is not as far as I recall). While Rick, John, and the other cave divers recruited are the equivalent of professionals in this unquantifiable sport, they are more or less amateurs when it comes to first-responder status. Some had done rescues and dealt with dead bodies before, but others had not. To then be asked to do what they are—the full-scope of what must occur to get the boys out safely deals with a ton of uncertainty and the threat of foreign imprisonment if it fails—and agree is no small feat.
When faced with the choice between their own potential death from trying or the boys’ certain death from not, they put on their gear and jump into the water. Not only that, but they also faced the real possibility of failure and the reality that they would have to live with the psychological anguish of falling short. It’s therefore paramount that we hear from them about the torment and second-guessing to recognize them as regular people answering a call rather than trained soldiers paid to perform. This isn’t a “white savior” story. It’s a human story about perseverance, faith, and bravery galvanizing strangers into achieving a goal that transcends borders, race, and religion. It’s man acknowledging nature’s might and the strength in humility that’s ultimately necessary to prevail.
 THE RESCUE chronicles the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach, trapped deep inside a flooded cave. E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin reveal the perilous world of cave diving, bravery of the rescuers, and dedication of a community that made great sacrifices to save these young boys. (Credit: National Geographic)
[2 & 3] Courtesy of National Geographic Documentary Films