December 10, 2021 – My wife says I closely followed the news about this daring rescue when it happened 3.5 years ago, but I barely remember that now. The last two years seem more like 10. Even then, however, I knew very little about what a miraculous rescue it truly was, or anything about the remarkable group of men who accomplished it, and the enormous, costly effort to support the rescue.
This wonderful documentary movie by National Geographic films tells the story behind the rescue of 13 people trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand in 2018. The movie uses state of the art computer graphics, archive footage, and reenactments of the rescue, featuring some of the original rescuers. A number of those involved also are interviewed, telling their own personal stories about the rescue.
This is the kind of uplifting story we need in these trying times of pandemic, social disintegration, anger, racism, hoarding, selfishness and travel restrictions. It is a story of many people from many countries coming together in common cause. In a time when human life seems to be worth nothing at times, when tens of thousands are dying who don't need to, we see, in this movie, thousands of people working to save 13, and the Thai government spending millions to save them.
The story begins on a nice day in June, when 12 boys and an assistant soccer coach enter the cave, a favorite spelunking spot, but soon become trapped when heavy rains cause rising water levels to cut off their exit. The military is called to aid the rescue, but even the Thai SEAL team can't get far into the cave with their diving gear. A local woman, Amp Bangnoen, who knows a British cave diver, Rick Stanton, calls him. Soon, Stanton and John Volanthen of the British Cave Rescue Council are on a plane to Thailand, where they are treated like heroes.
When they get to the cave, they are find utter chaos as spectators and news media are crowding the cave area. They are outsiders, who not welcomed by some of those in charge. One man who does welcome them is British caver Vern Unsworth, who lives in the area and is the leading expert on the layout of this particular cave system. He had already advised those in charge of the rescue that the only chance they have is to get the world's best cave divers, and Rick and John are on his list.
The Thai SEAL divers are brave and determined, but they can't understand how these two middle-aged divers are able to get so much farther into the cave than they can. The SEALs don't have the equipment or the experience to get as far into the cave as they need to go, especially in such terrible diving conditions. Strong currents, low visibility and narrow passages kilometers deep into the mountains make the journey nearly impossible, even for elite cave divers.
Conditions are so bad, even Rick and John lose hope, especially after they do manage to rescue four men from a pumping crew left behind and trapped relatively near the cave entrance. The men panic, flail about and keep trying to get to air. The rescue is extremely difficult, even for grown men being helped along under water for only 30 to 40 seconds. How can they possibly rescue children, who will have to be underwater for hours, traveling kilometers through claustrophobic narrow passages?
The SEALs and other divers, however, refuse to give up, and keep hauling in more diving equipment and extending safety lines farther into the cave. John said in an interview, “I am extremely disappointed in myself that we kind of gave up when we did. That shouldn't have happened.” At that point, the 13 had been trapped in the cave for 10 days. Most think they are already dead. Then the rains let up, massive pumping operations are underway and streams entering the cave system are dammed off through the efforts of thousands of people and heavy equipment. Diving conditions improve. Rick and John decide to try again.
On the next attempt, they become the first rescue divers to reach the area known as Pattaya Beach, the highest, most likely place for survivors to be, but no one is there. Instinct drives them on past Pattaya Beach, past their normal air supply safety margins, to an unknown spot in the cave. There, they find an area above water. They fully expect to find dead bodies, but instead find the 13 alive and well, two and a half miles from the cave entrance.
Even though the 13 are alive, there seems to be no way to get them out. The cave divers don't believe conditions will allow a normal underwater rescue to work. Because of the monsoon season, it will be months before the water in the cave will again be low enough for them to walk out. The air where the survivors are is bad and getting worse. The 13 will die unless they are rescued, and soon.
After a lot of brainstorming and consultations with doctor and fellow cave diver Richard Harris of Australia, they came up with a daring, unprecedented rescue plan. It is an incredibly risky plan, but seems to offer the best hope of success. Thai officials in charge want a no-risk plan, but there is no such thing. One volunteer diver, Saman Kunan of Thailand, has already died in the cave after delivering fresh oxygen tanks, another rescue diver later died of a blood infection he got in cave. In the end, over 100 divers are involved in the final rescue operation.
This movie does a great job of building suspense by emphasizing all the obstacles in the way of rescue, and the odds against success. It also does a great job of introducing us to the sport of cave diving and the few people who practice it on an elite level. Some of these people are loners. Some are on the fringes of society. Most are outsiders. Some are not “team players,” but they work together as a team for this rescue, perhaps because they all share a common passion for being in this alien underworld where they feel at home.
This is one of the best movies of 2021. It rates an A.
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