The Rescue

The Rescue may well be the documentary of the year. More thrilling than any big-budget Hollywood action movie and just as emotional as any Oscar-winning drama, the film recounts an incident from 2018 that captured the world's attention: twelve young boys and their coach were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in Northern Thailand. Even if you know what happened, the movie will keep you in suspense. If, like me, you had a general awareness of the story but don't know how it played out, get ready for 107 minutes that will have you white-knuckling the armrests of your chair.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who made the excellent Free Solo, begin by establishing the situation. The Tham Luang Nang Non cave is several miles long, making it a popular location for exploring. Under normal circumstances, only the predicable dangers exist, but in this case, a sudden pouring rain caused sections of it to flood, leaving the boys with no way out. Days went by, raising the question of whether they were even still alive.

The Navy SEALs couldn't get in due to the intensity of the water current, so all hope seemed lost. Then Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two middle-aged men who specialize in risky underwater cave diving, volunteered to assist. The Rescue uses footage shot at the time, including from cameras placed on those two experts' suits, to detail how the children were located deep inside, hungry and scared, but alive. (Prepare to get choked up at their reaction to being found.) We then see the divers working with the SEALs to formulate a plan to extract them, despite overwhelming obstacles.

When it took two super-experienced adult divers to get in, how do you get twelve inexperienced kids out? The plan chosen was insane, yet it was the only remotely conceivable idea anyone could come up with. Chin and Vasarhelyi use skillful recreations to dramatize what happened next, since these moments couldn't logistically be filmed. To call it harrowing would be an understatement. What Stanton, Volanthen, and the team they assembled did was such a Hail Mary pass that you watch this documentary with a mixture of awe and terror. If you don't believe in God, you might by the time it's over.

The key participants in the plan are interviewed on-camera, adding to our understanding of how improbable the scenario was. They also attest to the mental and emotional stress endured from realizing that time was running out when a second rainstorm hit, flooding the cave further. The Rescue combines those interviews with the recreations and the authentic footage to create a comprehensive look at this extraordinary group effort. This is a mind-boggling story, told with a sense of urgency that makes you feel like you're right there. Few films have recounted an actual event as vividly as this one. Looking away from the screen is impossible because it holds you in rapt attention from beginning to end.

It's safe to say that I will never forget or fail to be inspired by the heroism The Rescue so poignantly celebrates.


out of four

The Rescue is rated PG for thematic material involving peril and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.