Boy, have Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ever found their filmmaking groove. In the excellent mountain-climbing documentaries “Meru” and “Free Solo” — the first, a 2015 Sundance winner, and the latter their breakthrough 2019 Oscar winner — the husband-and-wife filmmakers told stories about a niche sport and its practitioners that were not just hair-raising, immersive and visually stunning, but insightful and emotionally stirring. (Chin is himself a climber.)
The couple’s latest documentary, “The Rescue,” is a bit of a departure in one way. It’s about a different elite community: cave divers, not climbers. But it’s true to form where it counts. Focusing mainly on Brits Rick Stanton and John Volanthen — who were among the crew of highly skilled recreational divers recruited to assist the Thai Navy and a host of other international volunteers in the 2018 rescue of a team of 12 youth soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in rural Thailand, and who first found the team — the film spins a yarn that is equal parts gripping and inspirational, even if you know the outcome from news reports.
Like Alex Honnold, the subject of “Free Solo,” the subjects of “The Rescue” are a special breed. They become calm and more focused while doing what would petrify or panic most other people: Jump into water that is muddy, cold and sometimes rushing like a white water rapid, and swim forward through cracks barely big enough to wriggle through under 1,000 claustrophobic feet of rock. And they do all this after Thai Navy SEALs have largely given up, and the Thai government has doubts about their competence.
The film includes many details you may not know, whether you pored over the round-the-clock news coverage of the 17-day operation at the time, as many across the globe did. That’s because, in addition to some of that news footage — artfully contextualized by new interviews with Stanton, Volanthen and the other mostly British divers — Chin and Vasarhelyi use reenactments with the original volunteers, shot in a pool in England’s Pinewood Studios. Perhaps most importantly, after two years of negotiations, the filmmakers finally obtained a trove of GoPro and other footage shot by the Thai Navy that only became available this May, after the film had been, in effect, finished. “We thought it would be 90 minutes of stuff,” Vasarhelyi told the Wrap, “but it turned out to be 87 hours of footage.”
Produced by National Geographic, “The Rescue” is not your garden variety documentary, and that’s not only because of the feel-good nature of the story, but to its subjects, who could not be more appealing if they had been chosen by Central Casting. Wryly self-deprecating — one of the volunteer divers describes his cohorts as a bunch of “scruffy, middle-aged men” — Stanton, Volanthen and their colleagues belie the Hollywood stereotype of the hero: They’re relatably balding, slightly geeky, a tad socially awkward and a bit paunchy. You don’t just root for them; you feel like you’re there with them.
As with Chin and Vasarhelyi’s previous films, ignore any instinct you may have to pass up this movie because it sounds too hyper-specific: an activity you’re not really that interested in, and a story whose ending you’ve already heard. “The Rescue” isn’t just a movie about cave divers, or a recap of a well-reported humanitarian operation. It’s ultimately a film about the triumph of altruism, ingenuity and perseverance in the face of almost impossible odds, by the very people you might initially have dismissed as not up to the task. In short, as cliche as it sounds, it’s about the triumph not just of the nerd, but the human spirit.