The directors of Free Solo return with a mesmerizing documentary about a daring deepwater dive

The 2018 rescue of a children's soccer team makes for high drama.
The 2018 rescue of a children's soccer team makes for high drama.

If you think you know the full story of how a soccer team became trapped in a Thai cave, a spectacle that drew the breathless attention of the world, you don't. With the documentary The Rescue, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi reveal a story that only gets more incredible the more you discover.

The documentary takes us to 2018 when a group of 12 young soccer players and their coach became trapped while exploring the Tham Luang cave in the Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. What followed was a remarkable and collaborative international effort to rescue the team before they perished deep underground.

Giving an inside look at the operation through starkly candid interviews with the divers who pulled it off and a sharp filmmaking eye that captures the scope of what was accomplished, it is one of the most harrowing documentaries you'll see this year. The more information gleaned about what exactly was being undertaken, the more in awe of the story you become.

One could only expect such an outstanding film from the husband-and-wife directing duo who previously worked on the Oscar-winning masterpiece of a documentary Free Solo. While The Rescue doesn't quite reach the same heights as that prior work, it becomes a powerful piece of cinema all its own by excavating the world of deep sea diving.

The way the film captures the darkness of diving exploration sucks the air out of your lungs as you're watching. It takes you into an abyss that seems like an endless pit of darkness with only the smallest of light cutting through. The enormous emptiness brings quiet, even a serene peace that remains terrifying as one single wrong move can bring about disaster. "Panic is death in the cave," one diver remarks with the brutal honesty that defines the tone of the film.

That is where the documentary also serves as a unique character study about the type of people who risk their lives taking the plunge. They have become the best in the world at a life-or-death hobby that makes them the perfect people for this miraculous rescue attempt. It delves into how this creates some conflict that eventually becomes a triumph of collaboration.

Even as it doesn't hide from the underlying tension between the foreign divers, many of whom are the most aggressively British people you'll meet, and the Thai Navy SEALs, it still keeps its head above other melodramatic elements of the spectacle. There is thankfully no mention of how tech bro Elon Musk unhelpfully inserted himself into the crisis and made insulting comments about those trying to save the trapped kids. All such background noise is largely kept at a distance with the focus rightfully left on the mission and the people risking it all to pull it off.

Such focus does make use of strange recreations that become increasingly distracting and out of place, though this is forgivable as a necessity of trying to capture a dire mission that would not have allowed for cameras. It certainly is a more conventionally told documentary in comparison to the directors' previous work that makes use of standard talking head interviews. Still, it refreshingly creates many striking visual moments where the divers appear to almost be swimming through a vast, vibrant galaxy while underwater.

The beauty of such moments juxtapose against the stakes of what is being attempted. There are so many ways where things could have gone wrong and many of the divers were terrified their actions would lead to the death of those they were trying to save. Indeed, tragedy does strike when a Thai Seal diver dies in an attempt to bring supplies to the trapped team. So much can and does go awry over the excruciating days of the ordeal.

Yet through it all, the documentary approaches the material with respect to all who were involved while also being as comprehensive as possible. At nearly two hours, it feels both much longer and much shorter than that. Longer in that you feel every day of preparation tick by with an agonizing slowness and shorter in that new, urgent plans have to come together so fast that it leaves you breathless. It is a story told with compassion and grace that never lets go as you sink deeper into its depths. ♦

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