TIFF 2021 Review: “The Rescue”

Featured Image: Tham Luang cave in The Rescue. (Courtesy of TIFF.)

Directed by E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin. Runtime 1h 54 min. The Rescue premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12.

The Rescue is the first documentary I’ve seen at TIFF, as part of their TIFF Docs programme. It’s a documentary about the rescue efforts in Thailand in 2018, when a soccer team of 12 kids and their coach found themselves trapped in the complex Tham Luang cave system.

I have a terrible memory, but I’m sure I tracked this story when it made global headlines in 2018. I must have missed some important factors about it, as I was picturing them being lost deep in a cave, or being caved in somehow, where I was picturing a 127 Hours or Kirk Douglas film Ace in the Hole kind-of scenario. I didn’t realize it was flooding that trapped them. These are some of the perfect details tracked.

Importantly, this documentary extensively shows the extent of the rescue effort and what went into it, and that’s what makes this so neat. It tracks that Navy SEALs came in first but weren’t able to find the kids because they’re not experts in cave diving. That’s where the cave divers come in, like Rick Stanton. Learning about them is fascinating, as they’re the best in the world and do it for fun. One of the film’s best scenes as the cave divers talk about their passion, but for so many it’s like the scariest, most claustrophobic thing.

These cave-diving scenes are thrilling – seeming to be actual footage and some re-enactments – and learning about the risks to try to rescue these kids is well-told and fascinating. The documentary finds a strong balance between talking heads, news channels and first-hand documentation of what was happening on the day in Thailand and how they were going about saving this team. It’s cool seeing the publicity “craze” and how many news crews were on the ground there for a global story, which really does call to mind the fictional Ace in the Hole.

The directors, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, do a strong job of establishing the cave system, too, using animations to show the extent of where they are and all the possible places that they could be, as we see several “chambers” within the miles-long cave system. On the director’s side, they knew the best questions to ask, like asking one guy if he’s ever lost anyone while cave diving. It’s an important question to establish the dangers, and also establish the stakes. Scenes like these also characterize these divers, too, in emotional ways.

Score: 75/100

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