Co-directors and extreme sports enthusiasts Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have covered cliffhanging exploits with their documentaries Free Solo (about a solo ascent of Yosemite rock face El Capitan) and Meru (about a climb in the Himalayas). Their latest puts them up against a new challenge: making something at least somewhat cinematic about cave diving in the preternaturally dark, subterranean world it involves.
Fortunately for them, their story revolves around the gripping drama that was the 2018 rescue effort to save 13 members of a Thai junior football team – 12 kids and their adult coach – who were trapped in a cave by an unexpected downpour. Not only is the story compelling, but thanks to how much the event captured the interest of the world’s media, there is a lot of archive footage to splice in among the generous wodges of talking-heads narration from the main participants.
An assortment of Thai navy Seals and government officials contribute their side of the story, a lot more screen time is given over (perhaps understandably given National Geographic is funding this for distribution largely in anglophone territories) to interviews with Brits Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, volunteer cave divers reckoned to be the best in the world, who were critical to the success of the mission. Amusingly self-deprecating and gruff, the two play down their own heroics and emphasise the importance of teamwork. Other volunteer cave divers, from all over the world, add colour to the narrative.
Even though the music gets very cheesy towards the end, it’s hard not to feel moved and so swept up that you haven’t time to wonder why none of the youngsters themselves are interviewed. Also, why is there no discussion of what was surely the juiciest, weirdest news of the rescue: the efforts from the entrepreneur Elon Musk to design a mini submarine that didn’t get used in the end because they were all running out of time, but somehow led to Musk calling one of the main people involved in the rescue, the British cave cartographer Vernon Unsworth, a “pedo guy”. Unsworth tried to sue Musk for defamation but lost. Hopefully, Unsworth and Musk will be duly noted in the forthcoming dramatic feature version of the story.
• The Rescue is in cinemas from 29 October.