One of the stories that The Rescue tells is that of a Thai princess discovering her lover’s body. Mourning, she dies by suicide, her death magically turning her hair into the Mei Sai River. That rivers flows through a system of caves under the Dong Nai Non mountain range. There’s a respectful tone to this story. This is what viewers can mostly expect from documentary directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. After all, despite these modern times, we have no one left to turn to but the gods. The Thai especially prayed hard to those gods in 2018. During the spring of that year, 12 boys and their coach lose their way inside a cave system 2 kilometres long.
The mix of tradition and modernity exists within The Rescue and the cave it captures. But for the most part, modernity wins. Both the Thai Navy Seals and a group international divers try to build infrastructure to make the search and rescue mission more efficient. They set up a wi-fi hub in the third chamber, for example. Many critics who saw the film compared it to a thriller, but the way it delivers information makes it feel more like a regular documentary. And this time around, the pieces of information it delivers have an immediate effect of saving young lives.
The divers then, face a hurdle in rescuing these boys, and that hurdle comes in the form of the bureaucratic yet concerned government of Thailand. The former believe that 15 days is a long enough wait for the boys, who need immediate rescue. The latter insist to be fully ready, lessening the risks that come with a hasty mission. Each group has their own way of voicing their opinion, which the film respects. This is where, again, the film’s respectful ethos come into play, as it shows the nuances with either position. The optics here are important to portray both sides well and without any evidence of hubris.
Instead of projecting, I’ll admit that I forget many events that make the news like the one that The Rescue captures, and the film does a good job of transporting its viewers into that recent historical moment. It shows contemporaneous footage of ambulances driving the children from the cave to a nearby hospital. It also has clips of news shows worldwide covering the event. Most of Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin’s documentaries are about one or a few subjects, inadvertently turning them into these ‘great’ conquering heroes. This film broadens its scope to many countries and subjects, making the latter seem humble in comparison to nature’s whims.