‘The Rescue’ – how a gang of hobbyists rescued Thai footballers from a cave
In 2018, 12 soccer players and their coach were miraculously rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand. Thanks to a group of middle-aged hobby divers, as the documentary The Rescue shows. Rick Stanton was one of them: ‘I consciously try not to hear the word ‘hero’.
Three and a half years ago, in the far north of Thailand. On June 23, 2018, soccer coach Ake and 12 players from the local youth team Wild Boars, all aged between 11 and 16, descend after training into Tham Luang Cave, the fourth-longest in the country. Bad plan, because sudden rainfall starts to flood the cave, the rising water blocks all exit in no time. The football players and their trainers are trapped like rats.
Two exciting weeks later there is cheering: the rescue operation, which is being followed all over the world, has a happy ending. A miracle, it sounds. But how did that come about? The Rescue, the new documentary by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (who won an Oscar with their blood-curdling rock-climbing documentary Free Solo), explains it from needle to thread, and mainly focuses on the vital contribution of a group of cave divers, who come from far and wide. flew far to Thailand.
Visually, The Rescue is on the dry side, especially compared to the spectacularly filmed Free Solo. Since the makers were not there at the time, they had to make do with the rudimentary images filmed on-site by Thai Navy Seals. Yet they managed to make an exciting and at times very moving reconstruction of an extremely difficult rescue. The documentary gives a clear picture of the risks (to reach the players, the divers have to guide them by feeling through an endless maze of pitch-black corridors), the extreme time pressure (monsoon rains threaten to make diving completely impossible), the hallucinatory methods (the divers have to completely anaesthetize the children to get them out safely), and especially how close it all has been.
But The Rescue is also a portrait of a very special kind of people: cave divers. Who are they, what do they do, and what the hell are they doing in those oppressive subterranean caves? In a video call, 60-year-old Briton Rick Stanton, who played a key role in the rescue, explains to us his bizarre passion as follows: “The entire surface of the earth has now been imaged – you can literally see every corner of the planet on your mobile phone. Only caves are still unexplored. That really appeals to me: ‘to go where no one has gone before. It feels a bit like space travel.”
The documentary also portrays the cave divers as eccentrics, loners who strangely find a kind of tranquillity in the most claustrophobic conditions that is difficult to reach on dry land. So why are they now seeking the limelight to tell their story? “The whole world followed the rescue on the basis of TV reports, but the press never got into the cave,” says Stanton. “In a way, we made it look really easy: we went in in the morning, and in the evening a handful of children were safe and sound in the hospital. But no one had the slightest idea how exactly we worked, or the emotions involved. We wanted to rectify that.”
The documentary shows how absurdly much responsibility rested on the shoulders of the cave divers: their ideas and impulses determined the course of the rescue because nobody else knew where to start. It’s almost comical to see well-trained Navy Seals humbly admit they can’t, pinning all their hopes on a gang of pale, middle-aged hobbyists. Stanton sees the humour in it himself: “Most of those Seals were half my age, and twice as fit. (laughs) But they were trained in diving, not cave diving. The two really have little to do with each other. I don’t consider myself a diver. Like a caver who happens to operate underwater. That experience made all the difference.”
What Stanton and his colleagues had no experience with is acting. Still, they played themselves in some pivotal underwater scenes recreated for the documentary. “But it was very clear that we weren’t going to act,” laughs Stanton. “That would look terribly wooden. We just repeated exactly what we did in Thailand, but in a water basin in a film studio.”
Those reconstructions weren’t just a necessary evil for director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: “It wasn’t until I saw the divers demonstrating in front of the camera how to bring the children out – they had to sedate them, tie their hands and feet and then push their heads under the water. … – it dawned on me what an enormous responsibility Rick and co voluntarily took on.”
Stanton himself remains sober: “Every time someone uses the word ‘hero’, I consciously try not to hear it”, he laughs. “My colleagues and I have simply built up enormous expertise through all those years of experience. Why not use it when it could really come in handy?”
‘The Rescue’ (***) will be in cinemas from 17/11.
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