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Rick Stanton and John Volanthen prepare for another dive in "The Rescue."

If you need a documentary to lift your spirits, The Rescue is your best bet in theaters right now. Maybe you remember the news story from June 2018 when 12 members of a Thai youth soccer team and their 25-year-old coach ventured into a cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand and found themselves trapped there by an early monsoon rain that flooded the entrance. Neither cave explorers nor the scuba divers of the Royal Thai Navy SEALs were equipped to deal with the unusual circumstances, so it fell to a group of eccentric, far-flung cave divers to reach the boys and eventually extract them after a two-week ordeal.

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin won an Oscar for their previous documentary feature, Free Solo. As with that movie, here the filmmakers are drawn to what sort of man pursues such a solitary and dangerous hobby. Retired British fireman Rick Stanton admits that his cave diving is the reason why he’s single, saying, “I’ve arranged my life to avoid having children.” He and IT consultant John Volanthen (another Brit) spearheaded the rescue effort because they were experienced at spending long hours squeezing through tight spaces in cold waters with near-zero visibility, all of which conditions met them in Chiang Rai. They were less experienced at dealing with the crush of international reporters who had gathered outside the cave to follow the story.

Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin fill out the interviews (which include Thai government officials and U.S. military officers who provided some vital logistical support) with slick animation that maps out the cave and demonstrates the kids’ predicament — the waters had forced them onto a patch of high ground six miles inside the cave system, so they couldn’t be dived out conventionally. The incessant rain meant that engineers and pump workers had to keep additional flooding from drowning the kids where they were. In desperation, Stanton and Volanthen turned to Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, an Australian cave diver and an anesthesiologist by trade, asking him whether the boys could be sedated before being transported underwater for two and a half hours. Harris nixed the plan, citing the dozens of ways it could go wrong. Eventually, he would develop a simple cocktail of drugs to allow for just such a thing.

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The footage inside the cave was filmed in a studio in London, so you know, with the divers re-enacting their rescues. How you feel about that will vary. I say that, while these could have been more clearly marked, the re-creations help us visualize the worsening conditions in the cavern in ways that the animation or the interviews couldn’t have. It brings home what an incredible feat of improvisation, skill, and luck this rescue operation was. Movies make a specialty of stories about survival against the odds, and The Rescue has the advantage of being true.

The Rescue
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Rated PG.

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