Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
United Kingdom/USA, 2021. National Geographic Documentary Films, Ventureland, Storyteller Productions, Little Monster Films, Passion Pictures, Cavalry Media, Michael De Luca Productions. Cinematography by David Katznelson, Ian Seabrook, Picha Srisansanee. Produced by Jimmy Chin, John Battsek, Bob Eisenhardt, P.J. Van Sandwijk, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Music by Daniel Pemberton. Production Design by Beverly Freeman, Prawut Ukrai, Laz Warwick. Costume Design by Sophia Aiudi. Film Editing by Bob Eisenhardt.
The 2018 dramatic rescue of twelve Thai boys who were trapped in a cave is detailed in this beautifully shot and factually thorough documentary. Told with the sharp focus and clear chronology that one can count on from National Geographic, not to mention a non-controversial take on every aspect of the story as would be expected of the generally apolitical publication, it takes us back to what was a typical day for the group of youngsters, who were all members of the same soccer team, playing near the caves that they’d known well since childhood. A rainstorm drives them in for shelter but when the rain doesn’t let up, the porous limestone caves flood and the children are trapped inside, necessitating rescue efforts that eventually take over two weeks, the participation of more than five thousand Thai locals and hundreds of volunteers from around the world to pull off a rescue that has to be seen to be believed.
Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi cover multiple angles on their way towards the climax, from the cultural legends attached to the caves (Princess Nang Non, whose doomed love affair made it her permanent resting ground) to a charming investigation of the personality types attracted to cave diving. After Thai Navy SEALs and the country’s royal army do their best but are unable to retrieve the young men, adventurous cave divers, interviewed on camera here, are tasked with trying their own hand at getting them out.
A dramatic journey through the lengthy caves leads to the location of the boys, who are all miraculously alive despite being without food for days, but getting them out will be an even more complicated situation. The length of the escape route is flooded and they won’t be able to swim the distance that took Navy SEAL Saman Gunan’s life, so one diver comes up with an idea so insane it might just work: sedate the boys, make their masks waterproof and drag them out to safety. Should they fail, the public would turn against them and the judicial system would be merciless, but it’s the only plan that could work and so it is put into action.
Featuring a wealth of dramatic footage captured by the rescue operatives, who strapped cameras and lights to their helmets, this is a succinct and satisfying record of a harrowing experience that does a fair job of capturing the human emotion involved in the story, while being clinically on point with the factual details.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021