Too good not to be true: Two movies about the Thailand cave rescue

The truth behind the 18-day effort to rescue twelve young soccer players and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand was too crazy to be reported at the time. Two films, a documentary and a drama film, tell the unbelievable story.

SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

Perhaps you were glued to the news in late June and early July of 2018 as the world followed the ultimately successful efforts in northern Thailand to rescue the 12 young boys of a soccer team and their assistant coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave who had become trapped by sudden flooding. If you haven’t checked in on the story since then, though, you have no idea. As incredible as the operation seemed at the time, the truth is so audacious, so insane, that the full details of how the boys were rescued weren’t revealed until well after the mission was completed, and news reports even months afterward continued to perpetuate misleading, overly rosy accounts of the rescue.

If you don’t know what really happened, don’t Google it. The best way to learn the truth today is by watching one of two movies: the well-crafted Ron Howard drama Thirteen Lives (in theaters July 29th and on Amazon Prime August 5th) or the astonishing NatGeo documentary The Rescue (one of my top 10 films of 2021, now streaming on Disney+).

Both films are moving odes to heroism, human solidarity, and ingenuity in the face of seemingly impossible odds. It’s a feel-good story in the end, but incredibly harrowing as it unfolds. So many factors way against the mission that success seems impossible even to imagine, let alone achieve. The long, at times excruciatingly narrow twists and turns of the cave are so daunting, and the water currents at the time were so strong, that even Thai Navy SEALs were at a loss. In the end, thousands of people, including local and international volunteers, local military and police, US Special Forces, and medical professionals made crucial contributions to the success of the mission — but the rescue itself was planned and carried out by a handful of British and Australian amateur cave divers whose passion for their niche sport had cultivated in them the specific skills needed for this operation. Even then, the mission would have failed had one of them not happened to have the right day job.

The Rescue: The right stuff

The Rescue is from husband-and-wife documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose Oscar-winning Free Solo was also about a devotee of an extreme sport, solo rock climbing without ropes or safety equipment. The Rescue is about a massive, coordinated effort both to keep the boys alive long enough to be rescued and to make their rescue possible, but it’s also about the disposition and the mindset required to make a hobby of spending hours at a time in pitch-black, labyrinthine, water-flooded recesses in the earth.

One can make a case that anyone who pushes the limits of human achievement, as Honnold does, is in a way glorifying the Creator of all (regardless of their intent, though whether it’s to their merit will depend on intent). But Stanton and Volanthen’s passion, though partly driven by similar motives, is also expressly altruistic.

Not unlike Alex Honnold, the emotionally withdrawn subject of Free Solo, retired firefighter Richard Stanton and IT consultant John Volanthen — British diving partners who volunteer with the UK-based Cave Rescue Organisation — are natural loners. By their self-deprecating accounts, they weren’t popular in school and did not excel at team sports. Yet the physical and psychological challenges of their passion, though nerve-racking just to think about for most people, they meet with deep calm and focus. Still, at the site of the Tham Luang cave in the early days of the crisis, it’s not necessarily readily apparent that these middle-aged, physically unremarkable-looking men have something to bring that the rugged, well-equipped SEALs don’t.

As gripping as Free Solo is, The Rescue has a vastly more compelling story to tell: one with a strong moral center. One can make a case that anyone who pushes the limits of human achievement, as Honnold does, is in a way glorifying the Creator of all (regardless of their intent, though whether it’s to their merit will depend on intent). But Stanton and Volanthen’s passion, though partly driven by similar motives, is also expressly altruistic. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that Stanton was a firefighter and that another critical team member, Richard Harris, is an anesthesiologist.) Nor are their works of mercy confined to saving lives. Stanton and Volanthen have also been called on to retrieve bodies from caves — a service they reasonably feared they would be called to render in Thailand.

The Rescue attests the human impulse to turn to a higher power when even the best human expertise and efforts may not be enough. At the mouth of the cavern is a shrine where visitors pray, light candles, and burn incense before a statue of the “reclining goddess,” Jao Mae Nang Non, for whom the cave system is named. (The outline of the mountains over the cave, viewed from the right angle, may be thought to resemble the outline of a supine woman.) The arrival of a prominent Buddhist monk, Phra Khuva Boonchum, creates a stir, especially when he declares that the boys are safe and that they will soon come out of the cave. After the boys are found, Stanton is pressed to bring them red string bracelets blessed by the monk — tokens that mean nothing to him, but a great deal to the boys. (We’re also told that the monk predicted that one or two people might die in the rescue. Former SEAL Petty Officer Saman Gunan lost his life in the cave while transporting air tanks to the chamber where the boys were trapped. Over a year later, another SEAL, Petty Officer Beirut Pakbara, succumbed to a blood infection contracted during the operation.)

Veteran editor Bob Eisenhardt deftly weaves among a blend of materials including interviews, location shooting, news reports, archival video (including stunning GoPro video shot by the SEALs), effective reenactment footage, and occasional computer graphics offering visual representations of the lay of the cave under the mountain landscape.

Thirteen Lives: Just the facts

Howard’s best film in ages was a documentary about disaster and hope: Rebuilding Paradise (2020), about the destruction of the town of Paradise, California in the Camp Fire of 2018 and its aftermath. With screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands), working from a story by Nicholson and Don MacPherson, Howard brings journalistic restraint to this dramatization, avoiding familiar Hollywood tropes in favor of a just-the-facts approach. In opening scenes one young soccer player skips the cave trip because his dad is expecting his help preparing for a cookout. The fateful weight of that chance parting of ways is entirely implicit; there’s no need for later scenes returning to that boy or his family during the crisis, exploring how they feel about his narrow escape, and the film doesn’t go there.

In Thirteen Lives, the diving sequences are intense and unnerving, the sound design a barrage of whooshing and gurgling along with grating and clanking of air tanks on rocks and such. What these sequences can’t convey is the low visibility in the rushing, murky waters.

Only when the action plunges beneath the surface does Thirteen Lives go for maximum impact, particularly sonically. The Rescue kept the diving reenactment footage lowkey, accompanying the detached commentary of its interview subjects. In Thirteen Lives, the diving sequences are intense and unnerving, the sound design a barrage of whooshing and gurgling along with grating and clanking of air tanks on rocks and such. What these sequences can’t convey is the low visibility in the rushing, murky waters. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) captures the crushing, claustrophobic sense of serpentine passages deep in the earth, but there’s always enough clarity and light to see by, which undermines the desperate fumbling of a diver when he loses his grip on a guide line or drops something crucial.

With Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton in the most prominent roles, Howard could easily have made a superhero movie if he wanted to, or — had he not actively worked to avoid it — a “white savior” story. Even more than The Rescue, Thirteen Lives focuses on the communal nature of the operation. Where the documentary notes, for example, the pivotal role of the massive engineering project aimed at draining millions of gallons of water from the cave, Thirteen Lives goes further, highlighting the efforts of an enterprising Thai water engineer (Nophand Boonyai) and the volunteers he recruits to prevent rainwater from entering the caves in the first place. (Local knowledge of the mountain is important here; local know-how also plays a role when pipes run short.) We see, too, the sacrifice of local farmers who allow their fields to be flooded and their crops destroyed if it could mean a chance for the boys (who aren’t even known to be alive at that point). Howard also shows us the coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), himself a former monk, teaching the boys meditation and breathing techniques to keep them calm and buoy their spirits.

Some critics have complained about the thinness of the characterizations, but I appreciate a fact-based film that doesn’t try to turn people in a crisis into characters in a drama. My one reservation in this regard is that Mortensen’s Stanton is so jaded that at times he seems needlessly unlikable. When Farrell’s Volanthen contacts him about the crisis in Thailand, he mumbles to himself, “I don’t even like kids.” After finding the kids, he almost seems annoyed that they’re alive, since it makes their job more difficult. And at one point he growls, “You can die in a cave if you want to — if I’m not sure I’m coming out, I’m not going in.” I’m pretty sure the real Stanton knows there are no guarantees in cave diving.

In a mostly apolitical tale of global unity and common purpose, Thirteen Lives finds a political angle worth bringing to light: The burden of the parents is seen largely through the eyes of one mother (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) whose fears for her son Chai (Pasakorn Hoyhon) are compounded by the fact that they are refugees from Myanmar and members of the Shan ethnic minority, deemed stateless and lacking basic human rights in Thailand. Her question for the regional governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is heartbreaking but understandable: Will her son be rescued with the other boys? The governor is also a focal point as a local leader on the brink of retirement who has been ordered to stay in office for the duration of the crisis in case a fall guy is needed. It would be unfair to say he’s over his head — the crisis is over pretty much everyone’s heads — but he rises to the occasion. (Closing titles tell us that the stateless boys, including their coach, have been granted citizenship, as have thousands of stateless residents of Thailand since then.)

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I’m glad I saw both films, though The Rescue is by far the more essential, and Thirteen Lives covers a lot of the same ground. Notably, there are important aspects to the story that neither version covers. For example, both films include alarming reports about the oxygen quality in the chamber where the boys are trapped — but neither explains that scores of oxygen tanks were brought into the chamber to improve the air (the effort in which Saman lost his life). The extent of the contributions of the Thai SEALs isn’t clear in either telling. Nor do we get much of a sense of the experiences of the boys. Perhaps some of these lacunas will be addressed in Netflix’s upcoming six-episode “semi-documentary” series Thai Cave Rescue, scheduled for September.

Documentary, Drama