The true story of the 2018 effort to rescue thirteen boys trapped in a huge flooded cave in Thailand is more exciting than most fiction.
There are true stories that are so exciting, documentary filmmakers must dream about the chance of covering them. A new film called The Rescue is a good example of this: it’s about the boys’ soccer team trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand in the summer of 2018. If you pay attention at all to the news, you would have heard about this. I did, but like a lot of news stories I only caught a few details at the time. I didn’t know how incredible and amazing the events really were. But the press did, and the film studios sensed it—there’s already been a Thai documentary, I believe, and apparently Netflix has bought the rights to dramatize the incident in a feature film.
The Rescue, the film I just watched, was directed by two filmmakers that are used to making movies about extreme situations, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, married climbers and the directors of two excellent films about climbing, Meru, and Free Solo, which I reviewed on this show. Those were fascinating stories about people who choose to put themselves at risk in order to achieve unprecedented feats of skill. But with The Rescue, there’s much more at stake.
A severe monsoon caused massive flooding in northern Thailand, and thirteen boys were reported missing. They had been exploring one of the country’s biggest caves when flash floods suddenly filled it. As the film opens, authorities don’t know whether any boys have survived. An Englishman named Vern Unsworth happens to live in the area, has explored the cave many times, and is also a diver. When the Thai government sends divers to try to explore the cave, their lack of experience in cave diving hampers their efforts. They ask Unsworth if he can find some expert cave divers. It turns out that he knows just the right people, and four British and Australian divers answer the call.
When they arrive in Thailand, the locals are skeptical. These are middle-aged men—the leader, Rick Stanton, a remarkable character we will get to know better as the film goes on, is 60 years old. They wear t-shirts and sandals and like to drink and tell stories. They don’t look like the guys who will save the day. But the thing is, they love cave-diving, the silence and the solitude and the great skill involved, and they’ve been doing it successfully for years.
Then the film provides more details and origin stories as the drama unfolds, getting us up to date on the situation. The divers need to find out if anyone’s still alive down there. That’s almost half the film, just exploring and searching for survivors in this cave that is over six miles long with different areas and branches. Then, after finally discovering that indeed they were still alive, deep in the cave, the question becomes: how in the world can they get the boys out alive? Even the Thai divers and SEAL teams became totally exhausted trying to swim through this cave, so these teen and preteen boys wouldn’t have a chance.
Now, if you followed the news story, you know how this turned out. But that doesn’t matter, because the film takes you into the suspense of the moment anyway, even though you know the ending, through actual footage taken by the divers mixed with beautifully executed reenactments. The tension of trying to figure out how to rescue the boys, and then pulling off the very difficult plan that they finally decided on, is some of the most riveting film viewing I’ve ever experienced. In addition, another important true character emerges later on—a doctor and diver who ends up playing a key role. Like I said, the story is amazing, better than anything you could invent or imagine.
But this is a moving experience at a deeper humanist level. People from all over Thailand and the world traveled to the cave site to help out. Water was redirected from the river so that the water in the cave wouldn’t flood any higher. Hundreds of volunteers sustained an operation that ultimately took seventeen days. The film conveys a moment of collective action when everyone was focused on saving these kids. I’d read about this and heard some of it, but to actually witness on film the outpouring of effort, for a goal that seemed almost impossible to achieve, is wonderful.
What I’m trying to say is, you really should see this movie! We need films about real events that demonstrate compassion and daring and courage. The Rescue shows how danger brought out the best in people, people who selflessly risked their own lives to save others. Rarely have I felt so grateful after watching a film.