Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s new documentary film “The Rescue”, which was released on Disney+ in last week, is a vivid and gripping presentation of one risky rescue which drew lots of public attention around the world at that time. Mainly focusing on a bunch of experts and many others involved in this rescue operation, the documentary shows us not only their enormous efforts but also how things could have gone disastrously wrong at any point during that time, and you may come to brace for yourself more than once even though you know how this remarkable real-life story eventually ended.
At the beginning, the documentary provides the overview of what happened inside the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand on June 23th, 2018. Although this cave was supposed to be closed in July due to the upcoming monsoon season, the weather on that day was quite rainy to say the least, and 12 local adolescent soccer team members and their 25-year-old coach became trapped somewhere deep inside the cave once the cave got flooded with lots of rain water not long after they entered the cave.
The rescue team was quickly assembled from Day 1, but it soon became clear to everyone that the situation was pretty daunting in many aspects. There were a group of local navy soldiers with some diving experience, but none of them had ever tried cave diving, and the condition inside the flooded cave was not very good to say the least. As rain kept coming from the sky during next several days, the cave became more flooded day by day, and that made the rescue mission much riskier than before. In addition, the rescue team had no idea on where those trapped boys and their coach were exactly inside the cave, let alone whether they were really still alive.
In the end, Vern Unsworth, a British financial consultant who joined the rescue team because of his considerable cave diving experience, suggested that they should call for several cave diving experts, and that was how Rick Stanton and several other cave diving experts from England entered the picture. Although they are technically amateurs who often pursue their passion toward cave diving during their free time, these guys do know a lot about diving into underwater cave, and, once they dove into the cave, it did not take much time for them to gain the trust from the local rescue team members.
However, the situation turned out to be much more daunting than everyone expected. At a middle spot inside the cave where the boys and their coach were presumed to stay, they found four other people who were also trapped at the same time, and the subsequent transfer of these people along the underwater passage of the cave presented a big obstacle for the rescue team. Often very dark and murky, the underwater passage of the cave could be quite scary and dangerous for anyone inexperienced, and Stanton and his colleagues came to see how it would be much more challenging for them to rescue those trapped boys later.
Nonetheless, they and many other rescue team members did not stop all. Outside the cave, lots of soldiers and volunteers constructed a makeshift dam which would prevent rainwater from entering the cave, while others tried hard to drain the water from the cave. Although the cave remained to be flooded as before, Stanton and his colleagues were finally able to dive deeper inside the cave, and, to everyone’s surprise and joy, they eventually found all the boys and their coach mostly alive and well at a spot quite distant from the entry of the cave.
Of course, that was the easiest part of the rescue mission, and the rescue team subsequently had to devise any possible way to transfer the boys and their coach as safe as possible along the long and treacherous underwater passage of the cave. Although they fortunately did not have much rain during last several days, it goes without saying that the cave would be soon flooded more and more due to the eventual beginning of the monsoon season, and the circumstance became all the more urgent when the oxygen level at the spot where the boys and their coach were surviving became dangerously low. At one point, the oxygen level was no more than 15%, and that will alarm anyone who, like me, knows that is lower than the safety limit for our body.
Thanks to one of Stanton’s colleagues who is also a doctor, they eventually found a way to transfer all the boys and their coach to the entry of the cave, but that required extreme caution to say the least, and a part showing what they did during next several days is pretty gripping to watch. Yes, I still remember well the outcome of this rescue mission, but I was captivated by how the documentary skillfully juxtaposes interview and archival footage clips with a number of remarkably realistic reenactment scenes, and the final several minutes of the documentary surely felt uplifting to me.
Overall, “The Rescue” is another excellent documentary from Vasarhelyi and Chin, who previously won an Oscar for “Free Solo” (2018). Although it is a bit shame that the documentary could not focus on those trapped boys and their coach as Netflix already bought the rights to their harrowing experiences, Vasarhelyi and Chin and their crew members did as much as they could within their territory, and I hope the upcoming Netflix documentary film will be equally compelling besides complementing its counterpart.