Perhaps you were glued to the news in late June and early July 2018 as the world followed the ultimately effective efforts in northern Thailand to save the 12 young kids of a soccer group and their assistant coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cavern who had ended up being caught by unexpected flooding. If you haven’t checked in on the story ever since, though, you have no concept. As amazing as the operation appeared at the time, the reality is so audacious, so ridiculous, that the complete details of how the boys were rescued weren’t revealed until well after the mission was finished, and report even months afterward continued to perpetuate misleading, extremely rosy accounts of the rescue.
If you do not know what really took place, do not Google it. The very best method to discover the fact today is by seeing one of 2 motion pictures: the well-crafted Ron Howard drama Thirteen Lives (in theaters July 29th and on Amazon Prime August 5th) or the astonishing NatGeo documentary The Rescue (among my top 10 films of 2021, now streaming on Disney+).
Both movies are moving odes to heroism, human solidarity, and resourcefulness in the face of relatively difficult odds. It’s a feel-good story in the end, but extremely harrowing as it unfolds. Success appears impossible even to think of, not to mention attain: Numerous elements weigh against it. The long, at times excruciatingly narrow passages of the cavern are so difficult, and the water currents were so strong, that even Thai Navy SEALs were at a loss. In the end, thousands of people, consisting of local and international volunteers, regional military and cops, US Unique Forces, and doctor made crucial contributions to the success of the objective– however the rescue itself was planned and carried out by a handful of British and Australian amateur cave scuba divers whose enthusiasm for their specific niche sport had actually cultivated in them the specific abilities needed for this operation. Even then, the objective would have failed had among them not happened to have the ideal day job.
The Rescue: The right stuff
The Rescue is from husband-and-wife documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, whose Oscar-winning Free Solo was also about a devotee of a severe sport, solo rock climbing without ropes or safety devices. The Rescue has to do with a massive, coordinated effort both to keep the kids alive enough time to be saved and to make their rescue possible, however it’s also about the personality and the state of mind required to make a pastime of costs hours at a time in pitch-black, labyrinthine, water-flooded recesses in the earth.
Not unlike Alex Honnold, the mentally withdrawn topic of Free Solo, retired firemen Richard Stanton and IT expert John Volanthen– British diving partners who volunteer with the UK-based Cave Rescue Organisation— are natural loners. By their self-deprecating accounts, they weren’t popular in school and did not excel at group sports. Yet the physical and mental difficulties of their enthusiasm, though nerve-racking just to consider for the majority of people, they meet deep calm and focus. Still, at the site of the Tham Luang cave in the early days of the crisis, it’s not necessarily clear that these middle-aged, physically unremarkable-looking guys have something to bring that the rugged, fully equipped Navy SEALs do not.
As grasping as Free Solo is, The Rescue has a vastly more compelling story to tell: one with a strong ethical center. One can make a case that anyone who presses the limits of human accomplishment, as Honnold does, remains in a way glorifying the Creator of all (no matter their intent, though whether it’s to their benefit will depend on intent). But Stanton and Volanthen’s enthusiasm, though partially driven by comparable intentions, is likewise specifically altruistic. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that Stanton was a firemen which another critical team member, Richard Harris, is an anesthesiologist.) Nor are their works of grace restricted to conserving lives. Stanton and Volanthen have likewise been gotten in touch with to retrieve bodies from caverns– a service they fairly feared they would be called to render in Thailand.
The Rescue testifies the human impulse to turn to a greater power when even the best human know-how and efforts may not suffice. At the mouth of the cavern is a shrine where visitors hope, light candles, and burn incense prior to a statue of the “reclining goddess,” Jao Mae Nang Non, for whom the cave system is called. (The overview of the mountains over the cave, seen from the right angle, may be thought to resemble the outline of a supine woman.) The arrival of a popular Buddhist monk, Phra Khuva Boonchum, produces a stir, specifically when he states that the young boys are safe and that they will soon come out of the cave. After the boys are found, Stanton is pushed to bring them red string bracelets blessed by the monk– a token that suggests nothing to him, but suggests a great deal to the young boys. (We’re also told that the monk forecasted that one or 2 individuals may pass away in the rescue. Ex-SEAL Petty Officer Saman Gunan lost his life in the cave while carrying air tanks to the chamber where the kids were trapped. Over a year later on, another SEAL, Petty Officer Beirut Pakbara, succumbed to a blood infection contracted throughout the operation.)
Veteran editor Bob Eisenhardt deftly weaves among a mix of products including interviews, area shooting, news reports, archival video (including spectacular GoPro video shot by the SEALs), reliable reenactment footage, and occasional computer system graphics providing graphes of the lay of the cave under the mountain landscape.
Thirteen Lives: Just the truths
Howard’s finest film in ages was a documentary about catastrophe and hope: Rebuilding Paradise (2020 ), about the damage of the town of Paradise, California, in the Camp Fire of 2018 and its aftermath. With screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands), working from a story by Nicholson and Don MacPherson, Howard brings journalistic restraint to this dramatization, preventing familiar Hollywood tropes in favor of a just-the-facts method. In opening scenes, one young soccer player skips the cavern journey because his father is anticipating his assistance preparing for a cookout. The eventful weight of that opportunity occasion is completely implicit; there’s no need for later scenes returning to that kid or his family throughout the crisis, exploring how they feel about his narrow escape, and the movie does not go there.
Only when the action plunges beneath the surface does Thirteen Lives go for maximum impact, particularly sonically. The Rescue kept the diving reenactment footage lowkey, accompanying the detached commentary of its interview subjects. In Thirteen Lives, the diving sequences are extreme and unnerving, the sound design a barrage of whooshing and gurgling along with grating and clanking of air tanks on rocks and such. What these series can’t evoke is the low presence in the hurrying, dirty waters. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) catches the squashing, claustrophobic sense of serpentine passages deep in the earth, however there’s always adequate clearness and light to see by, which weakens the desperate fumbling of a scuba diver when he loses his grip on a guide line or drops something crucial.
With Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton in the most prominent functions, Howard could quickly have made a superhero motion picture if he wished to, or– had he not actively worked to prevent it– a “white rescuer” story. Even more than The Rescue, Thirteen Lives focuses on the common nature of the operation. Where the documentary notes, for example, the essential function of the huge engineering project aimed at draining pipes countless gallons of water from the cavern, Thirteen Lives goes further, highlighting the efforts of an enterprising Thai water engineer (Nophand Boonyai) and the volunteers he recruits to prevent rainwater from going into the collapse the first place. (Local understanding of the mountain is important here; local knowledge likewise plays a role when pipes run short.) We likewise see the sacrifice of local farmers who permit their fields to be flooded and their crops damaged if it might suggest a possibility for the young boys (who aren’t even understood to be alive at that point). Howard likewise shows us the coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), himself a previous monk, teaching the young boys meditation and breathing techniques to keep them calm and buoy their spirits.
Some critics have actually grumbled about the thinness of the characterizations, however I appreciate a fact-based film that doesn’t attempt to turn people in a crisis into characters in a drama. My one booking in this regard is that Mortensen’s Stanton is so jaded that at times he appears unnecessarily unlikable. When Farrell’s Volanthen contacts him about the crisis in Thailand, he mumbles to himself, “I do not even like kids.” After discovering the kids, he actually seems annoyed that they live, since it makes their task more difficult. And at one point he roars, “You can die in a cave if you want to– if I’m unsure I’m coming out, I’m not going in.” I’m quite sure the genuine Stanton understands there are no guarantees in cave diving.
In a primarily apolitical tale of international unity and typical purpose, Thirteen Lives discovers a political angle worth exposing: The problem of the moms and dads is seen mainly through the eyes of one mother (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) whose worries for her boy Chai (Pasakorn Hoyhon) are intensified by the fact that they are refugees from Myanmar and members of the Shan ethnic minority, deemed stateless and doing not have standard human rights. Her question for the regional governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is heartbreaking but easy to understand: Will her kid be saved with the other kids? The guv is also a focal point as a regional leader on the edge of retirement who has been ordered to remain in workplace for the duration of the crisis in case a fall guy is needed. It would be unjust to state he’s over his head– the crisis is over pretty much everybody’s heads– however he rises to the celebration. (Closing titles tell us that the stateless young boys, including their coach, have been approved citizenship, as have thousands of stateless residents of Thailand since then.)
* * *
I’m pleased I saw both movies, though The Rescue is by far the more important, and Thirteen Lives covers a great deal of the same ground. Significantly, there are important aspects to the story that neither variation covers. For instance, both movies consist of worrying reports about the oxygen quality in the chamber where the young boys are trapped– however neither explains that ratings of oxygen tanks were brought into the chamber to enhance the air (the effort in which Saman lost his life). The level of the contributions of the Thai SEALs isn’t clear in either informing. Nor do we get much of a sense of the experiences of the young boys. Perhaps some of these lacunas will be addressed in Netflix’s upcoming six-episode “semi-documentary” series Thai Cave Rescue, scheduled for September.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider contributing to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR readily available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your kindness!
Click on this link to learn more on contributing to CWR. Click on this link to sign up for our newsletter.