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The Rescue

"This has all the drama and tension of a thriller"

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- National Geographic's engrossing, emotional Thai cave documentary - 

Only those living under a rock would fail to remember the real-life drama that gripped the world for two-and-a-half weeks during the winter of 2018.

Twelve teen and tween members of a Thai football team (“the Wild Boars”) and their assistant coach were celebrating a birthday with a post-practice visit to the popular Tham Luang Nang Non caves when they became trapped by sudden heavy rainfall which blocked any potential passage out.

For many days, a nation and the globe held its breath, hoping for the miracle that they might still be alive.

Assistance for the seemingly ill-equipped Thai forces came from a variety of international sources, but as the Oscar-winning Free Solo directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s latest documentary recounts, the rather unlikely heroes were a group of volunteer British and Australian cavers who came up with some radical solutions, but had to battle bureaucracy in order to be able to carry them out.

Not only did they need permission from the local navy seals and guardian spirits, but if something went wrong, they could end up in the Thai judicial system. They even went so far as to organise a James Bond-esque extraction to their respective embassies, just in case things did go pear-shaped.

That’s one of the many fascinating revelations in this step-by-step, soup-to-nuts look at this seemingly impossible rescue attempt.

Told in almost forensic detail by the “hobby” cavers themselves, ordinary blokes like retired West Midlands firefighter Rick Stanton (a man who had structured his life “to avoid children”), Bristol IT consultant and Cubs leader John Volanthen and Australian anaesthetist Richard “Harry” Harris, as well as Vern Unsworth, a Thai-based caver who suggested they were the men for the job, it’s an engrossing, emotional tale, with expressive direct-to-camera modern day interviews seamlessly combining with impressively detailed but easy-to-follow onscreen graphics, sometimes intimate archival footage and cleverly reconstructed diving scenes that you’ll swear were the real thing, to create harrowing, yet inspiring viewing.

It’s an approach that reminds you of the award-winning, ground-breaking mountaineering doco Touching the Void (making it unsurprising to learn that that film’s director Kevin Macdonald was originally attached to the project). That it took home the People’s Choice Documentary Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is also no real shocker.

However, the project does suffer slightly from a lack of perspective from those rescued. What seems like a glaring oversight though, is explained by the modern day issue of competing projects, a la the twin Whitney Houston docos from 2017/18 and the recent scramble for a slice of the Britney Spears pie.

Netflix had already commissioned a rival tale focused on the kids’ experience that we will no doubt see in due course. I can’t help feel though that this National Geographic-backed production got the better deal.

This has all the drama and tension of a thriller, including last-minute dramas and a final race against time, with the protagonists themselves talking us through the risks they were taking (including having to essentially knock the kids out in order to drag them safely through the underwater sections), the fears they had that it could all go wrong and the faith this seemingly disparate group of blokes (who confess to all being terrible at team sports) had in their own and each other’s abilities.

James Croot, STUFF

The Rescue is now playing at Light House Cinema Petone & Cuba!

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