Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the filmmaking couple who won an Oscar for the stunning 2019 documentary “Free Solo,” return with the equally engrossing “The Rescue” which chronicles the against all odds story of the twelve boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded Thailand cave in 2018.  Using a plethora of discovered footage, new interviews, and reenactments, the documentary keeps you glued to the edge of your seat as if you’re watching breaking news unfold.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.  Take, for example, retired firefighter Rick Stanton and IT consultant John Volanthen.  Both men were lousy in sports and picked on in school, yet they became instrumental in the rescue of the trapped soccer team by using their cave diving expertise to come up with an inconceivable plan straight out of an Irwin Allen disaster film.  It remains one of the most daring rescues ever attempted and now for the first time the complete story can be told thanks to the over 87 hours of footage, most of it unseen, acquired from the Thai Navy.

For two months, the Wild Boars soccer team was trapped in an air pocket in one of the few above-water areas of the winding 6-mile long Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Northern Thailand.  The cave closes each year during monsoon season when it becomes flooded and impassable.  On the day the boys, ages 11 to 16, rode their bikes to the mouth of the cave, it was open.  The date was June 23, 2018, still a month away from the official start of the rainy season. Somehow Mother Nature didn’t get the memo and once inside Tham Luang an unexpected downpour began, the water rose quickly, and the boys became trapped inside along with their 25-year-old coach.

The documentary lets the major players tell the story by tracing the timeline using intercut footage to guide the viewer.  The Thai Navy Seals were brought in for the rescue operation assisted by US Special Forces and as the footage shows they learned quickly they were out of their element.  Local Brit and experienced cave diver Vern Unsworth who was familiar with the snake-like cave system, suggested the government use the world’s best cave explorers to aid in the rescue.  

This wasn’t the first rodeo for Stanton whose forty years of expertise had been called on before to aid in other rescues. Volanthen, a world-record-holding caver, had also been involved in cave rescues.  Together the British men devised a plan so risky that Australian cave explorer and anesthetist Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, originally declined to take part in the operation which he deemed impossible.  But time was running out, the boys were running out of air, and Harris soon realized that he was their only hope of getting out alive.

Unlike their documentaries “Meru” and “Free Solo” this was the first time Vasarhelyi and Chin were tasked with telling a story that had already happened.  How do you make up for the loss of spontaneity? Brilliantly the husband-and-wife directors decided to use the actual participants involved to recreate some of the rescue’s daring moments.  With 87 hours of footage at their disposal, most of it captured in high def by GoPro cameras, the seamless integration of reenactments, helps the filmmakers keep the tension high creating the illusion that they were on the scene to chronicle the daring rescue. 

While Stanton, Volanthen, and Harris are seen as the principal players in the rescue, it couldn’t have happened without the hundreds of Thai and international military personnel, rescue workers, and volunteers who worked endlessly to rescue the trapped soccer team. Their voices, while represented, get lost in the shuffle.  Regardless of whether you know the outcome, “The Rescue” is a nail-biter that should be experienced on the biggest screen possible.   

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in select theaters

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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