Filmmaking (and life) partners Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have made three feature films together now: 2015’s Meru, a chronicle of Chin’s ascent of the titular mountain in the Himalayas; 2019’s Free Solo, which won them a (well-deserved) Oscar for Best Documentary; and now, The Rescue, a film that takes the pair from the sprawling, wide-open sides of the mountain into the claustrophobic, flooded underground caves beneath the earth. The film, a National Geographic production, recounts the 2018 incident when a Thai boys’ soccer team went exploring into a cave and ultimately got trapped when the water level inside rose beyond what they could traverse back to the opening and safety. Unlike their first two films, in which the pair had close ties to the subjects (or in the case of Meru, they were the actual subjects), there’s no discernible connection between Chin, Vasarhelyi and this story, except the fact that these two, with their experience in telling nearly unbelievable stories of unthinkable challenge and unimaginable triumph, are the perfect filmmakers to bring this story to life.
The Rescue relies heavily on the news footage of the time, as the story of these trapped boys and their one coach made headlines worldwide, the whole planet watching to see if they’d emerge alive. The filmmakers also speak to those involved in the subsequent (and significant) rescue mission, from divers called in from around the world to loved ones of those on the ground during the effort. Neither of these filmmaking techniques is terribly remarkable, and certainly without them, the film would feel lacking; the audience must see the historical record, must hear from those who lived through it. What Chin and Vasarhelyi accomplish, then lies just beyond these well-worn conventions. As they progress through the timeline of the mission at hand, the filmmakers make the bold choice to incorporate re-enactments of some of the rescue’s most pivotal—and scary—moments. Re-enactments in a documentary rarely turn out well; it’s too hard to truly recreate the circumstances of whatever event or moment, and this footage usually turns out feeling forced and out of place. Here, the filmmakers pair their re-enactment footage seamlessly with film shot by those in the midst of the rescue. Though neither of them were ever there during the long days and nights while the boys were trapped, they smartly use this footage to place us in the thick of it, as teams from all over the world collaborate and cooperate with one goal in mind: get those boys home safely.
As with most documentaries based on historical events (and, though it was only a few years ago, this rescue is already that), the ending is, unless you were living under a rock in 2018, not a surprise. What is incredible here is the way the film still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through the entire process. The filmmakers use animated maps to explain to those of us without much knowledge of caves, diving and dangerous rescue missions just what these teams had to confront to get to the boys, the ingenuity with which they mapped out their every step and the true bravery it took to put themselves at risk for the sake of others. The second half of The Rescue is so intense, it’s sometimes difficult to watch; the courage those divers, crews and families had to summon to get done what had to be done is nearly superhuman. In the end, the film is as triumphant, if not more so, than both Meru and Free Solo, films filled with their own brand of tension, fear and bravery. The Rescue sees Chin and Vasarhelyi doing what they do best as a filmmaking team, documenting for posterity the best, boldest and most admirable of the human spirit.
The Rescue is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.
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