Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have done this to us before. It’s as if they know some ancient spell that prevents people from blinking. The reputation of this highly effective documentary power couple is based on all the fantastic, white-knuckle work they’ve done together, which includes “Meru” from 2015 and the Oscar-winning “Free Solo” of 2018. Those two films opened up the high-stakes world of elite climbing and, if you saw either one, you know how good the directing duo is at creating and maintaining the kind of tension that keeps an adventure documentary taught. Given that they work with subjects that can be Googled and spoiled right after the trailers are released, this is no small feat. All documentarians face this challenge. Unless the stories they choose are incredibly obscure, the endings are often already well known to everyone.
Imagine choosing a truly international incident as your documentary plot. How could you possibly hold the audience for nearly two hours with such celebrated and thoroughly reported material? The drama at the heart of “The Rescue”, Vasarhelyi and Chin’s latest for National Geographic, is just that. It’s the harrowing tale of a youth soccer team in Northern Thailand. The boys got trapped in a flooded cave in 2018 and it was big news, all over the world. “The Rescue” takes us through the 18-day ordeal with the expected mix of interviews, contemporaneous footage, CGI and staged re-enactments. The last two elements on that list are worth special mention in this movie. There was quite of bit of film from the actual events, but obviously none made during the most dangerous moments. So, like non-fiction filmmakers have done since the beginning of time, Vasarhelyi and Chin had to not only set the stage for viewers, they needed to build parts of it from scratch. They did this with some really clever graphical ingenuity and a commitment to using actual participants in each of the re-created scenes. To be honest, I couldn’t always say for sure what was original footage and what wasn’t, which is a compliment, certainly, but also a potential admonition.
It must be very tempting to let technology do too much heavy lifting in a documentary. At the very least, the need to create their own content exposes these filmmakers to the seductive allure of the genre’s worst habits. Fudging the details, re-ordering timelines and withholding key information unnaturally to manipulate the pacing of a story are all common sins in this business. But Vasarhelyi and Chin don’t seem to be interested in any of that. Structured to simultaneously follow the internal and external progress of the boys’ plight, “The Rescue” tells it straight. The interview segments are tight and informative, with a varied collection of voices that repeat in a comfortably rhythmic way. This was another great decision on their part. In what could have easily devolved into another white savior narrative, the directors made sure to leave plenty of room for the Thai people themselves. Much of the press back in 2018 focused on the British cave divers and other foreign experts who lead the effort to find the kids and bring them out safely. “The Rescue” puts them front and center as well, but they are not there alone. Vasarhelyi and Chin never let us forget that this grand drama happened in Thailand, with Thai families at the heart of it.
Even without a single villain and with no secrets to reveal, “The Rescue” grips you during its first minutes and never lets go. With light touch editing and a well-wrought sense of place, the directing team that brought us “Free Solo” has crafted another wonderful portrait of human resolve and hope.