Producers: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin and Bob Eisenhardt   Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin   Cast: Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, Vernon Unsworth and Richard Harris   Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment

Grade: B+

In two of their previous films, “Meru” and “Free Solo” (which won an Oscar in 2019), documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin focused on individuals who worked their way skyward—cliff-climbers who put their lives on the line attempting dangerous ascents.  Now they offer another nail-biter, but it’s about those who go underground in a noble cause: made by National Geographic Documentary Films, it recounts the multinational mission that extracted a team of young Thai soccer players from flooded caverns at Tham Luan in the country’s north in June and July of 2018.  Though the rescue attracted widespread news coverage at the time, those sporadic reports could hardly convey the full impact of the endeavor; “The Rescue” aims to do that.

An assemblage of archival clips, interview segments, graphics and reenactments, the film is told from the perspective of the divers—members of the Thai Navy SEALS and volunteers—who accomplished what appeared to be impossible, the location and rescue of the boys and their coach, who had entered the elaborate cave system just before unseasonably early monsoons struck, trapping them deep inside.  As the days passed, it appeared that they could not have survived for so long a period without food, but somehow they had, and in order to get them out it was necessary that they be put to sleep with drugs, dressed in wet suits and in effect carried out individually through excruciatingly tight passages.

All those who participated in the operation—the Thai SEALS (one of whom died in the effort, a tragedy the makers cover with admirable dignity), American Special Forces soldiers, and locals and nationals from other countries who flew in to help—are treated as heroes.  But special focus is put on a small group of British men for whom cave diving had long been an unusual hobby (and a passion), and who had over the years manufactured special equipment to allow them to navigate the most cramped and forbidding underground channels.  They’re recommended to Thai authorities by Vernon Unsworth, a British expatriate familiar with the caves, and include Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who in turn recruit Richard “Harry” Harris, an Australian diver whose medical expertise is put to use in the final stage of the mission—though not without serious reservations on his part. 

We get to know them well, since post factum interviews with them make up a good deal of the picture, and the reenactments are of their perilous journeys through the passages, first as they gingerly proceeded into them (finding and rescuing four trapped pump workers whose presence inside was completely unknown) before coming upon the children, and then as they brought out the unconscious youngsters one by one, not certain they could endure the trip in a drugged state but knowing that if they were left awake, they would panic as the pump workers had. 

One might be surprised that there is less emphasis on the soccer players: the original footage of them huddled on a ledge deep in the caves is included, along with that taken during some of the food deliveries, but after their extraction, only some cursory archival footage and stills are inserted.  The reason is simple.  Their story had been sold to another production firm, and so presumably one can expect another film, whether a documentary or a dramatization, told from their perspective at some future date. 

Vasarhelyi, Chin, and editor Bob Eisenhardt have put together all the material at their disposal—including that shot by cameramen David Katznelson, Ian Seabrook and Picha Srisansanee—with skill, and composer Daniel Pemberton’s score adds to the mood.  But there’s a miscalculation at the close, when a cheesy pop tune about believing in the face of apparently insurmountable odds is laid over the closing credits.

Apart from that, “The Rescue” is a tense and absorbing documentary that rarely puts a foot—or a stroke—wrong in telling a tale of courage and determination.  And it also works as a character study of some remarkable men whose choice of hobbies might seem strange, but turned out to be essential in saving the lives of thirteen youngsters.