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Duck and Dive

National Geographic Documentary Films

The Rescue (2021)

A documentary recounting the 2018 mission to save a Thai soccer team of 12 kids and a coach trapped inside a flooded cave, “The Rescue” easily matches any dramatic action thriller in its ability to rivet viewers. This is no surprise coming from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the filmmaking couple behind the Oscar-winning “Free Solo.”

The Wild Boar soccer team, comprised of rural boys aged 11-16, traveled far inside the 10 km Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand, the sixth deepest in the country. Normally it would be shut by mid-July when monsoon season regularly caused flooding that blocked internal access to entrances, but the downpour came early that year.

The documentary is aptly titled, as it focuses on the extrication effort so exclusively that Ms. Vasarhelyi and Mr. Chin do not appear to have talked to any of the soccer players or their coach. Unless they declined to be interviewed, this is basic Documentary 101 stuff and a significant oversight. Instead, the vast majority of soundbites come from white foreigners who arrived in Thailand specifically to aid in the rescue mission. It’s a choice, and a curious one considering the filmmakers themselves are Asian Americans.

Vern Unsworth, the British cave explorer who unsuccessfully sued Elon Musk for defamation, is seen as a creep here for different reasons than the one the Tesla guy accused him of. He immediately presented himself as an expert, inserted himself into the initial stages of rescue efforts and bossed the locals around seemingly without any real credentials. As if that’s not enough caucasity, the film makes a point that he was romantically linked to a Thai woman whom he met during her two-week jaunt to Britain. To his credit, he did surface a list of expert British cave divers. And at this point, the filmmakers have the good sense to abandon his narrative.

The Brits managed to save a group of pump workers that no one knew were missing, but they were unable to do anything about the soccer team. An actionable plan wasn’t in place until the involvement of Australian cave diver Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, whose professional expertise in anesthesiology was instrumental in safely removing the team without precipitating panic attacks in these untrained divers. Although the foreigners were indeed the heroes who saved the day, by the time we get to them we are already weary and suspicious of the condescending white savior complex exemplified earlier by Mr. Unsworth. One can only imagine how much worse this will get in the upcoming Hollywood dramatization directed by Ron Howard and starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton.


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