I, like many of you, was riveted by the news of a Thai soccer team trapped in flooded (and flooding) cave. The rescue was harrowing, and uncertain. The whole world watched. Now we get to reexperience this miraculous mission from all angles, not just what the media reported or the Thai government allowed. Or in my case, what my limited memory could recall.
Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi stick to the unvarnished truth, and need little embellishment to make this a gripping, edge of your seat documentary. In June 2018, twelve members of soccer team The Wild Boars, aged 11-16, and their 25-year old assistant coach were playing in the Tham Luang cave when it flooded extremely quickly and over a month earlier than usual, trapping them inside. The water rose so quickly and the current was so strong that no contact was made for 11 long days. Imagine the mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, and grandparents assembled outside, praying for their safety, unsure of whether they were even still alive, knowing that if they were, they were cold, wet, hungry, sitting in darkness waiting to drown, waiting to die.
The Thai Navy SEALs had no cave diving experience so they called in experienced recreational divers from around the world, like British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who were the first to actually find the boys alive. It would be six more days before a rescue attempt was even made, a time during which approaches and methods were hotly debated, and both time and water were their enemy. The rescue operation involved more than 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, thousands of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers, and 2,000 soldiers.
At the time I was deeply invested in seeing those kids come out safely, and I perhaps didn’t appreciate the how much went into their rescue. Thanks to this doc, I have a better understanding of how everything went down: how excrutiatingly crucial each small detail was to the mission’s success, how easily it could all go wrong, how to drag children underwater for over three hours without them panicking, putting their own lives at risk as well as their rescuers. Ten police helicopters, 7 ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves were all coordinated for this rescue effort’s success, and the truth is, the plan was improvised on the spot. No protocol existed for a mission that had never been attempted, never even thought possible. These volunteer divers put their lives on the line to save the children of strangers, and only their own bravery and faith got them through it.
I knew how this mission ended, but I was still riveted by its execution. In fact, the ending is made all the more extraordinary once you discover the true breadth of its ambition, the true depth of its risk.
The Rescue screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries. Look for it in theatres October 8.