Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 30, 2021 9:27 pm 
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Compelling retelling of the Thai cave rescue from the cave divers' POV

This film takes you deep into a flooded cave, a muddy, twisty, dark place that's terrifying, and into the world of men who love to be there. Their hobby enables them to carry out a tremendously challenging rescue operation with the whole world watching. Nobody else could have done it. But they couldn't have done it either without a joint international effort and above all the bravery and endurance of the boys (age 11 to 16) who spent 13 days trapped in the cave, nine of those days before anyone found them or could communicate with them. This tells the inside story of the men, not so much of the boys. The boys' story remains to be fully told. But this is still a great story. And incredibly suspenseful.

The Rescue is a film the work of the pair responsible for the Best Documentary Oscar film of 2018, Free Solo, so you know, or at least strongly suspect, that it will be well made, indeed exceptionally so. It's about the rescue of the Wild Boars youth soccer team from the flooded cave in northern Thailand in the summer of 2018, so you know it will be upbeat, because the boys and their young coach were saved. That said, this is a very different film and event from Free Solo and ace rock climber Alex Honnold. But it is as uplifting as you could want it to be, a happy and inspiring story of courage and persistence that makes you think hard about goodness and dedication to the welfare of others.

Free Solo is above all the analysis of an unusual individual, a world-class risk taker of extraordinary skill and very much a not very well-socialized loner, whose climactic exploit required that people, the film crew, and even his girlfriend keep their distance. The Rescue is about saving thirteen people, not one, who were isolated from the world against their will; and according to reports upwards of ten thousand people participated in various ways in their rescue. The one film is a story of purposeful solitude, a lonely exploit; the other, of extraordinary teamwork, a disaster involving a whole nation that the whole world watched and many nations shared in resolving.

One thing critics of The Rescue point to is this: The filmmakers are not participants this time. Not only that, but they were not able to speak to the boys or their families in making this film. They speak to a lot of people, and they get some of the participants to reenact moments from the events. But they don't get inside anybody's head quite the way they do Alex's. Some critics also find the pace of this film "languid" at the outset. Okay: this isn't as unique a film. But it's a richly detailed account of an extraordinary event and it's highly recommended.

What happened was that after practice, the rural Wild Boars northern Thailand junior soccer team, aged 11-116, went into the cave with their 25-year-old assistant coach to explore. This was not so unusual as it sounds. It was a traditional play spot for the boys. But it was midsummer, June 23, and the monsoon season, coming on early, brought a very heavy rain that flash-flooded the cave and trapped the boys and coach. It wasn't until nine days later that anyone was able to find them - over four kilometers from the mouth of the cave, on a high ledge where they had taken refuge. When the cave divers came and found the boys, they had cameras. The sight of them is unforgettable.

We hear from the Thai honorary British consul and a commander of the Thai navy SEALS. The latter played a very important role. We also hear from a young Thai woman who had just recently been in England and met a cave diver and they had apparently fallen in love. She was back home. These exceptional events brought him to near where she lived. We see numerous brief news clips to show how big a story this was all over the world. We also see extensive coverage of the operation to remove flood water from the cave - a prodigious effort essential to the rescue's success. Pressure of time makes this story so suspenseful. The boys had to be extracted before there was another big wave of monsoon rain that would have made rescue impossible. was almost impossible anyway.

We hear from a lot of people. But the key figures in the rescue are a small handful of mostly British cave divers, headed by retired firefighter Rick Stanton and his frequent diving partner, John Volanthen, an I.T. consultant, both middle-aged men who carried out this odd, to most people scary and forbidding pursuit as an intense, beloved hobby for many years. They're an elite, oddball crew - as it turns out, rather loners, so not so unlike Alex Honnold, after all. It turns out navy SEALS just don't have the skills for swimming through a long, twisty, irregular, narrow flooded cave passageway. (One of them died due to running out of oxygen.) It was a while before it was clear that only specialized cave divers could do the job and Rick and John were called in, referred by the highly visible local British expat Vernon Unsworth.

When the divers found the lost team of boys and their young coach , huddled, brave but forlorn, on their ledge, the enormity of the problem became clear. How could they get them out? It required swimming for several hours underwater with an oxygen tank. The rest of the film depicts the solution found and the three-day operation to bring the boys out, one by one. The solution, spearheaded by an Australian cave diving doctor who doesn't think it will work, requires the support of the United States military, the Royal Thai Navy, the engineers behind a massive groundwater pumping operation, and a handpicked gang of additional divers from across Europe. (No need for Elon Musk's proposed miniature submarine, never mentioned here.)

To tell this, Chin and Vasarhely skillfully merge news and hitherto unseen footage of the rescue with face time and seamlessly blended reenactments into an intense, edge of the seat tale. There remains the story of the boys, how it was for them. The filmmakers manage to cover their omissions and what Jessica Kiang calls in her New York Times review a "defiantly outsider perspective" with the compulsiveness of the events and their narrative skills that make this, as Dallas King of Flickfeast called it yesterday, "an incredibly empathetic experience," one we follow as if it were going on as we watch, and we were watching it firsthand. This is a special kind of documentary filmmaking at which Chin and Vasarhelyi are masters. The boys' POV remains to be heard from, but the rescue couldn't be told better than this.

The Rescue, 107 mins., debuted at Telluride Sept. 2021, showing also at Toronto, Camden, Hot Springs, Woodstock, the Hamptons and Jihlava (Czech Republic), a Natural Geographic film with a US theatrical release starting Oct. 8. Screened at Landmark Shattuck, Berkeley, Oct. 29. Metascore: 86%.

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