On June 23, 2018, a boys soccer team from Thailand was exploring the Tham Luang cave in Northern Thailand, when heavy rainfall caused the cave to suddenly flood, trapping them inside. Their rescue was spearheaded by British cave diver Richard Stinton and involved the help of additional cave divers, doctors, the Thai and American militaries, as well as plenty of volunteers from around the world.
From the “Free Solo” Oscar-winning documentarians Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is the adventurous tale of the boys’ soccer team in the 2021 film,“The Rescue,” which includes never before seen footage, interviews and recreations of the rescue mission.
Even with so many different people working together, the documentary makes it clear that this rescue’s success was nowhere near inevitable. Uncertainty, specifically how people cope with uncertainty, is one of the most pervasive themes in “The Rescue.” Many people prayed to local deities and spirits for the survival of their children. And although the foreign cave divers are somewhat dismissive of this idea, they too have more secularized rituals for dealing with uncertainty: one of the divers stresses the importance of “positive visualization,” and uses motivational exercises with the kids in order to get their spirits up. These rituals are both vital for the morale of those involved, but also exceptionally fragile. The reality is that during this rescue, nobody — not the children, nor the divers, nor the army — knows whether these kids will make it out of this cave alive.
This uncertainty creates a feeling that harkens back to a time where humans weren’t the apex predators, and lived at the mercy of mother nature’s fickle favor. There is no human enemy in this story, it is purely a challenge of navigating and combating natural processes. And yet, these obstacles of nature still feel nigh insurmountable. The incredible pumps and dams devised by the rescue team to divert water from the cave only lower the water level by a centimeter. The Navy SEALs and soldiers who have gone through the most rigorous physical training of anyone on the planet are completely helpless when trying to navigate the dark, flooded, muddy cave system. Even the doctor who anaesthetizes the children says himself that he is unsure whether he is saving these children or euthanizing them.
One of the things that is made clear throughout the documentary is that cave diving is extremely difficult and unpleasant for the vast majority of people. It requires one to crawl and swim through a cold, dark, cramped and muddy hole. As mentioned previously, most of the Thai Navy SEALs were not able to handle it, one of them even tragically died from asphyxiation during a dive.
However, for a small group of eccentric hobbyists, this activity is not only doable, but enjoyable. These people who stood at the fringes of society for so long, managed to use what made them different in a way that benefits humanity, and they weren’t the only ones.
For as nerve-wracking and harrowing as “The Rescue” is, it is ultimately a story of human triumph. While the success of the rescue was far from inevitable, it still happened. All of these people looked this horrific danger in the face, and pushed through to save the lives of these children, each of them using their own unique skills and prospects to help a common good. In an era where the most conflict is between different groups of people, where the biggest threat to humanity is humanity itself, this act of cooperation feels significant.