Review: ‘The Rescue’ (2021), starring Rick Stanton, John Volathen, Ben Svasti, Weerasak Kowsurat, Richard Harris, Vern Unsworth and Anupong Paochinda

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen in “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

“The Rescue” (2021)

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Rescue” features a group of Asian and white people (mostly rescue divers and military/government officials) discussing their involvement in the mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “The Rescue” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching true “life or death” stories that are informative and emotionally stirring.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

The documentary “The Rescue” is riveting and inspirational in its retelling of the rescue mission that saved 13 people trapped in a Thailand cave in 2018. Netflix bought the exclusive rights to get the stories of the people who were trapped in the cave and their families. Therefore, “The Rescue” mainly has the perspectives of the rescuers and some of the government officials who made crucial decisions that helped save the lives of all 13 people.

“The Rescue” was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife duo who won an Oscar for directing the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” about famed rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017. “The Rescue” isn’t as suspenseful as “Free Solo,” mainly because most people watching “The Rescue” already know the outcome of the rescue mission. “The Rescue” cinematography, although impressive, isn’t as visually stunning as the cinematography in “Free Solo.”

“The Rescue” has a mixture of exclusive interviews, news archival footage and recreations of the rescue mission by some of the people who were there. This recreated footage might not sit too well with documentary purists. However, without some visuals to accompany the stories told in the interviews, “The Rescue” would be a very dry documentary of mostly talking head interviews. It would somehow seem too trite to use animation to recreate the fascinating and monumental stories told in “The Rescue.” If “The Rescue” filmmakers wanted to have recreations in this documentary, live-action footage (rather than animation) was the better and more challenging choice.

The documentary’s quality is compromised, due to the lack of perspectives from the trapped victims and an over-reliance on recreated footage. “The Rescue” triumphs mostly as a fascinating true story of human resilience and compassion. This story is also a great example of people overcoming cultural differences for a shared cause.

The ordeal of the 13 people trapped in the cave began on June 23, 2018, when 12 boys (ranging in ages from 11 to 16) from a junior soccer team, along with the team’s assistant coach, entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. They wanted to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys and spend some time in the cave before expected monsoons started that summer. They didn’t know it at the time, but the monsoon rains would arrive earlier than expected, and the flooding would trap them in the cave, which stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles.

The 12 boys were Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan. The soccer coach was Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong, a former monk. Kanthawong’s skills as a monk would come in handy in teaching the boys to stay calm in this crisis.

Members of the Thai Navy SEALs were among the first government-sanctioned rescuers. Thai Navy captain Anan Surawan comments, “I felt immense pressure. Everybody has high expectations when it comes to the Navy SEALs.” Royal Thai Navy rear admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, who was the commander of the cave operations, says in the documentary that the first rescue unit had only 17 people.

Unfortunately, nearly all the Thai Navy SEALs were not trained to do the type of cave diving required for this rescue. Once this cave rescue made international headlines and it became obvious that more people were needed for this enormous mission, thousands of people from around the world offered their services. (The documentary mention that about 5,000 people in Thailand were involved in the rescue in some way.) The Thai government ended up getting a list of cave divers who were considered among the best in the world.

Although “The Rescue” certainly gives credit to the Thai officials who ended up making crucial decisions that resulted in all 13 people being saved, the documentary makes the biggest heroes and “experts” of this rescue mission to be the non-Thai civilians who came from other countries—specifically England and Australia—to offer their help. The teamwork between the Thai people and the non-Thai people was crucial to this successful mission, but the movie still has the tone that the non-Thai people deserved most of the praise and the glory. It’s a tone that will be a little off-putting to some viewers.

In “The Rescue,” viewers will get extensive personal histories and backgrounds of three Anglo rescuers in particular, all of whom all did cave diving as hobbies: retired fireman Rick Stanton (from England), information technology consultant John Volanthen (from England) and anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Harris (from Australia). They all describes themselves as daredevil cave divers, who feel like they are in some ways society misfits because most people think their passion for cave diving is obsessive.

“The Rescue” goes so deep into the personal histories of Stanton and Harris, their respective wives (Amp Bangnoen for Stanton, Dr. Fiona Harris for Richard Harris) are interviewed, even though the wives were not directly involved in the rescue mission. “The Rescue” also details Stanton’s and Bangnoen’s courtship, which is extraneous information that veers a little too off-topic. The only other wife interviewed in the documentary is Waleeporn Gunan, the widow of Thai Navy petty officer Saman Gunan, who tragically died in the cave during this rescue mission.

Most of the cave divers interviewed in the documentary talk about the sense of independence, adventure and freedom they have when cave diving. Volanthen comments, “Cave diving, for me, is relaxing. Nobody tells you what to do. Your time is your own. It’s very liberating. Having said that, most of the time it’s jumping into a muddy hole.” Stanto adds, “It’s like being in space. The purest adventure you can have.”

Vern Unsworth, another British cave diver enthusiast who was part of the rescue team, had the advantage of diving in the cave long before the rescue mission took place. Unsworth, who’s a financial consultant by profession, says in the documentary: “I’d been involved heavily with the exploration of the cave. That’s why I became known locally as the crazy foreign caver.” Unsworth adds that with all due respect to the Thai Navy SEALs, “They’re a strong, disciplined outfit, but cave diving needs specific skills and specific types of equipment.”

In “The Rescue,” Unsworth is credited with giving General Anupong Paochinda (Thailand’s minister of the interior) a list of people whom Unsworth considered to be the best cave divers in the world. Stanton and Volanthen were two of the names on the list. At first, these non-Thai outsiders who volunteered their services got resistance from the Thai government, but as the situation got more desperate, the government became more open to listening to the suggestions of the expert cave divers who came from outside of Thailand.

It was soon determined that the rain water would have to be diverted, in order to prevent more flooding. For several days, the boys and their coach could not be found in the cave. And when they were found, the biggest challenge was how to get them out safely, since all of the trapped people were not expert divers. Figuring out the best way to get them out alive took several more days until it actually happened.

A radical and risky idea was to give the rescued survivors a powerful anesthesia so that they would be rendered unconscious and therefore not panic while they were being carried out of the cave. Richard Harris had the enormous responsibility to oversee this anesthesia implementation. He admits in the documentary that he was very skeptical and frightened about this idea because of the high probability that it would result in fatalities.

Richard Harris doesn’t mince words when he remembers what he thought about this high-risk sedation: “It felt like euthanasia to me.” He adds that he struggled with the medical ethics of this dilemma until he was convinced that it was better to try this method than to do nothing. Doing nothing would mean certain death for the people trapped in the cave. Sadly, on the last day of the rescue, Richard Harris got the devastating news that his father had died.

Other rescue cave divers interviewed in the documentary include Chris Jewell, an information technology consultant from England; Jason Mallinson, a contractor from England; Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, a General Motors employee from Thailand; Thanet Natisri, a Thailand expatriate living in the United States; Josh Morris, a consultant from the United States; Ben Reymenants from Belgium; Jim Warny, an electrician from Belgium; Connor Roe from England; Josh Bratchley from England; and Mikko Paasi from Norway.

Thai officials interviewed include Thailand minister of the interior Paochinda; Royal Thai Army lieutenant general Bancha Duriyapunt; Weerasak Kowsurat (who was Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports in 2018); Suratin Chaichoomphu of the Thai Groundwater Association; Suratin honorary British consul Ben Svatsi; Mae Sai district mayor Somsak Kanakam; Royal Thai army colonel/chief of staff Singhanat Losuya; and Colonel Bhak Loharjun, the Royal Thai Army’s chief medical officer. Other documentary interviewees who were part of the rescue include Unsworth’s live-in girlfriend Tik Woranan; U.S. Air Force pararescuer sergeant Derek Anderson; and U.S. Air Force captain Mitch Torrel, a special tactics officer.

“The Rescue” (which has effective editing and a stirring musical score) tells this story in such vivid details, it’s almost as if viewers are watching it unfold all over again, from the perspectives of the people who were involved in the rescue mission. Still, these rescuers had the luxury of being able to leave the cave and get food, fresh water and proper shelter when they needed it. The people who were trapped in the cave did not have those privileges during their ordeal. And what it felt like for the survivors who were trapped in the cave is a story that will have to be told in another documentary that is not “The Rescue.”

National Geographic Documentary Films and Greenwich Entertainment released “The Rescue” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. Disney+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

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