‘Free Solo’ Directors Go Underground To Document History’s Most Extraordinary Cave Rescue

On July 2, 2018, Rick Stanton and his dive partner John Volanthen surfaced from submerged tunnels four kilometres deep in Thailand’s Tham Luang cave. Half a kilometer ago, they’d blown past their air safety margins to find 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach — or their corpses — trapped somewhere inside.

Suddenly, voices and lights issued from behind a muddy ledge. There stood all 13 team members, hungry but alive. Stanton told himself out loud to believe — believe that this extraordinary vision was real. The group had disappeared 10 days earlier.

After a brief exchange and a bit of spoken encouragement, Stanton and Volanthen left the trapped Thai kids in the dark. At that moment, there was nothing else they could do. Thus, they prepared for the long haul back to the cave mouth, where they would come up with a way to extract the team. As they rounded the corner, the two men exchanged knowing glances in a melancholy moment.

Stanton remembers,

[t]otal silence between me and John. Just a look into each other’s faces, thinking ‘we may be the only ones that ever see them.’

The dive would be the turning point in the most unlikely cave rescue the world has ever seen. It’s also the turning point in Oscar-winning filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s The Rescue. The film attentively documents the incident, an elaborate worldwide rescue effort in Chiang Rai, Thailand that took place when early monsoon rains trapped the boys in the cave. Executed in strict documentary format, the movie traces the details of the rescue operation from start to finish.


Diving in: Action of ‘The Rescue’

It’s well-sourced and thorough, knitting together clips from news outlets, interviews, exhaustive re-enactments of the rescue featuring the divers themselves, and over 87 hours of footage shot by Thai Navy SEALs. The narrative style delivers the story blow by blow. While I did find parts of it to be procedural, it gave me the impression that it covered every key point, and that I would learn each one.

That’s saying something, considering the massive complexity of the rescue.

Tham Luang is one of the longest cave systems in Thailand. The total length of its karstic tunnels amounts to 10km. The soccer team (known as the Wild Boars) was busy exploring the system when monsoon rains started unseasonably early. The downpour flooded the cave in minutes, trapping them inside. (Note: In many ways, the Wild Boars’ predicament was not their fault. The cave is basically in the team’s backyard; they regularly explored it without incident.)

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Entrance to the Tham Luang Cave, Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo: kwanchai/Shutterstock


The ensuing rescue operation required countless technical dives by field experts like Stanton and Volanthen, as well as Navy SEALs from several nations. Over 10,000 Thais and 1,000 people from around the world eventually participated. And it was all a race against the clock: The boys spent the first 10 days gradually starving as CO2 slowly replaced oxygen in the chamber, and the monsoon would fully flood the cave in a matter of days.

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Divers prepare for the rescue on July 2, 2018. Photo: Capt. Jessica Tait/U.S. Air Force

Impressions and Key Points

Chin and Vasarhelyi’s film follows the story in dutiful detail. This is no average hero flick, where protagonists win the day by performing rote acts of bravery. Instead, The Rescue is careful to display the main characters as they are, warts and all. They’re transparent about their self-doubt, they dance with their demons — in a word, they’re human. For instance, watching Volanthen admit his “extreme disappointment” in himself after he and Stanton nearly give up on saving the boys is anchoring.

It’s similarly faithful to the plot points that make the story work. Instead of trimming details to narrow the focus and increase the drama, it addresses important but less visible details. For example, the massive pump operation that kept water levels in the cave at bay, and the translator who sold the final rescue plan to Thai authorities.

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The pump network was immense and required a staggering amount of work to maintain. Photo: Capt. Jessica Tait/U.S. Air Force


Oddly, it may be the team doctor who steals the show. Dr. Richard Harris spends his entire involvement in the rescue laboring under the question of whether he’s violating the central tenet of all physicians — the Hippocratic oath. Tasked with obligations that flirt with the line between murdering patients and saving them, Dr. Harris is disturbingly dark and viscerally real in his interviews. He’s also arguably the most important figure in the rescue. Without his expert involvement, there’s zero chance the boys can make it out of the cave alive. But the doctor, rendering care that’s literally unprecedented, labors throughout the film under feelings of fraudulence and duplicity.

If one wanted to, one could use Harris’ lurking fear to interpret the movie’s texture at large. Virtually every individual that the filmmakers interview admits they doubted the rescue at one point or another. The diving conditions are awful, with strong currents, opaque water, and claustrophobic channels. Cultural and language barriers continually threaten to derail progress. If that wasn’t enough, a grim myth about a grieving princess paints a gloomy pallor over the action. At one point, a holy man visits the cave site to issue a prescient but unsettling prophecy.

Conclusions: is ‘The Rescue’ worth it?

While The Rescue is mostly doom and darkness, it’s not all doom and darkness. The story is, after all, [spoiler alert if you’ve been living under a rock for several years] about a successful rescue. After a moving act of perseverance and collaboration, tears of joy and cathartic reunions elicit profound gratitude that unites individuals, nations, and cultures.

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The Tham Luang cave entrance in 2019, with a photo installation commemorating the rescue. Photo: amnat30/Shutterstock


While it sometimes labored under the sheer immensity of the story, I ultimately considered the movie worthwhile. I didn’t expect it to teach me as much as it did, nor did I expect the characters to be so compelling. I’ll admit that the conclusion even made me a little teary; who doesn’t love a happy ending?

The Rescue (PG) premiered at the 48th Telluride Film Festival on September 2, 2021. National Geographic will make it available for all audiences on October 8.