The one thing to count on in a Jimmy Chin-Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi documentary is tension. Their iteration of the feeling creeps up as the story goes on, and in no small part, this is because their documentaries have significant expository arcs. In their Oscar-winning film “Free Solo,” it was necessary that viewers intimately understood the risks Alex Honnold accepted in order to understand the dangers of his climb, aside from a “very high cliff!”
The spirit that Honnold embraces, a life-or-death sport (or to most eyes, simply madness), finds new life in the couple’s latest documentary, “The Rescue.” It tells the story of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, though not from the rescuees’ perspectives. Someone else holds the rights to that story.
This film is from the perspective of the divers who rescued the stranded boys. British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, among others, get primetime treatment here, which poses thorns that Chin and Vasarhelyi might have clipped with a more explorative documentary but leave unsnipped with the divers as their guide.
The divers do make for worthwhile subjects — they were, after all, the only people who could carry out the rescue. As “The Rescue” explains through interviews with members of Thailand’s Navy SEALs, the country’s forces were unprepared for the extreme challenges the cave posed.
Yet, with the documentary so focused on the divers, it calls to mind something Virginia Woolf wrote: “The waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by steep gulfs, and foaming crests.” In some ways, “The Rescue” stands at the cliff top and loses its ability to texture its world. As told with a combination of real and recreated footage, the film makes an effort to be in the thick of it — just with the divers, predominantly.
“The Rescue” opens some 20 hours into the rescue. Outside the cave, the camera lingers on the bicycles the boys left behind, then finds its way to their families. This is most of what the documentary shows of the families: shots of them crying, wailing in hopelessness and dejection. The effect on the film’s mood is palpable but summarily reductive to anyone other than the divers.
Everyone else at the scene — the mothers crying for their sons, the religious figures — are given bystander service, which is not to say they’re ignored or erased, but treated without curiosity. “The Rescue” mainly has eyes for the divers and their thrills, which make for a nerve-wracking documentary, but it’s one that’s lost in the muddy waters its subjects had navigated against all odds.
The film’s obscurity isn’t helped by an overt directorial skew. Chin and Vasarhelyi have a soft spot for what the divers call their weekend hobby — the couple’s documentaries muse over death-defying extremes. “The Rescue” indulges in the stories of the divers’ childhoods, that many of them were never good team players, that one handmakes all his equipment. At one point, the film splurges on a line about Stanton and Volanthen sharing a bed “top and tail.”
When it comes to devising how to ferry the boys out of the cave, the nailbiter kicks into high gear. But where the divers’ stories provoke curiosity, “The Rescue” cuts away. The film’s interest in the psyches of the divers ratchets up; yet, when one scene finds a diver talking about his fears during the rescue, “The Rescue” breaks the connection.
There’s something to be said for respecting the trust that interviewees put in filmmakers not to misrepresent them. At the same time, “The Rescue” finds the directors working with emotions they’ve explored in the past. “Free Solo” could dust over the stresses Honnold put on those around him because the sport was his life.
But in “The Rescue,” two subjects compete for the documentary’s attention. One gets the extreme sport drool. The other — anything extraneous to the divers — is rendered flat because of the filmmakers’ sluggish adaptation to the film’s demands with only cursory concern.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].