'The Rescue's Never-Before-Seen Footage Dives Into Thai Soccer Team Rescue

There are no spoilers as to what happens at the end of The Rescue, the new documentary from Academy Award Winning director duo, E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. The world remembers vividly following the dramatic 2018 real-life story of the Thai children's soccer team trapped for 18 days deep within Thailand's flooded Tham Luang cave. It transfixed the world and culminated in nothing short of a miracle with their survival.

While we know how the against-all-odds story ends, with never-before-seen footage from inside the cave and authentic reenactments with the real cave rescue divers, we finally see how the impossible happened.

The Rescue is a nerve-wracking, riveting emotional ride, that creates a suspension of belief there's a happy ending as it simply doesn't seem possible. It's the genius of married directors Vasarhelyi and Chin who won an Oscar for creating that exact heart-pounding visceral suspense in Free Solo, the documentary that follows Alex Honnold's death-wish-like attempt to conquer the first free solo climb of monolith El Capitan.

The Rescue Film Cave Diver
National Geographic

The Free Solo filmmakers are showing again an equally perilous and single-minded sport: Cave diving. Yet this time the unlikely heroes are a group of middle-aged hobbyists who are the only people with the unique skill set that ultimately saves the boys. The Rescue delves into this global rag-tag Avengers team's death-defying talents, but more so the human potential of using them for good. As the directors tell Newsweek, it's the human moral potential they explored this time: "Are you willing to do the right thing when you have everything to lose?"

Newsweek: The Rescue is your first big undertaking since winning an Oscar for Free Solo. Why this film and why now?

E. Chai Vasarhelyi: We were riveted by the story and living through the downs and then the ups and the impossibility of it all. 2018 was a pretty tricky time in the world. There's something about the story and everyone coming together that was really moving and also kind of an antidote to the moment.

And sadly, the story of the rescue is only going to increase in poignancy as time has passed because of the pandemic. We were really moved personally, not only as parents but also about this idea of absolute morality: if you can, do you do the right thing? These divers and everyone who volunteered were willing to risk everything to try to save these children that they had never met before.

It was a story that we really wanted to share. It's bittersweet because when you watch the movie now it's uplifting that it works, but then you remember that if we all could do our best and be generous, we'd be probably in a very different place as a society now.

The Rescue Film Thailand Cave
National Geographic

You only had rights to the divers' stories, correct? So is that why you focused on the rescuer's perspectives?

Nonfiction is an interesting genre in that major obstacles end up becoming opportunities and elevate your craft in some way. This film had every obstacle possible, including a rights situation where different studios owned the life rights of the children and their families and the coach.

And other obstacles about this film were there was no footage essentially from inside the cave that was known, and if they did film inside the cave, it was pitch black and the waters muddy. Then you add a pandemic. I'm very proud of the film we were able to make given those constraints, and we've always been interested in the character evolution of the divers, as well as the collaboration between the Thai Navy Seals, the Thai Army, and US Air Force PJs.

Jimmy Chin: This global community coming together really set aside their differences to achieve the impossible. With how divided the world is right now this is a story about our common humanity. There are elements of the "East meets West" and getting over those differences to achieve this rescue.

Vasarhelyi: But given the rights situation, it made it all the more urgent that we pursue the Thai Navy Seals footage that was rumored to exist. And we ended up being able to include it. Everything that you see of the children has never been seen before, except for that initial clip when they first found them.

So at the 11th hour, you get 87 more hours of footage to go through, right? Why was this so key to the story and the final film?

Vasarhelyi: There are about 15 minutes of that footage in the film now. And it's astounding, an amazing amount of work that the Thai Navy Seals did to film within the cave. It's like a documentary miracle, where suddenly you find out they filmed when [rescue divers] Rick and John emerge and tell the Thai Navy Seals that they found the children, or when John did this motivational cheer [with the children].

You're suddenly there in the cave with them and also see the sheer scale of the operation. You finally see why there were thousands of people required to support the 10 divers. You finally understand just how much work it was, how perilous it was.

Chin: How perilous it was in the cave even moving them [the children] from chamber three to the entrance. You see they have like a Tyrolean traverse where they're stringing the stretcher across like a chasm and it gave the film a bit more immediacy and sense of scale. And it's never-seen-before scenes, which was for us like finding a pot of gold.

Vasarhelyi: It's one thing to talk about how people come together and affect a rescue. It's a different thing when you actually see it happening, and you understand the scale, the chaos, the desperation.

The Rescue Film Close Up Cave Diver
National Geographic

How did you film the reenactments for the rescue missions and how did you make it look so realistic?

Chin: It was really important to us that the film was authentic. So we brought the divers together and this exercise was more than just shooting reenactments, this exercise was about them demonstrating how they move through the water and the caves, the headspace they get into to get into the water, and seeing all the details of what they actually did.

It was so important for us to see it and be in the water with them. What you're seeing is as accurate as we could possibly make it.

It was incredible to watch, like when one of the divers got lost underwater when he couldn't find the safety line. This film began its development at the start of the pandemic. How did that impact filming it?

Vasarhelyi: Our first trip to Thailand was planned for February 2020. So mid-February we're supposed to leave and one cinematographer dropped out and then another dropped out. It became very clear the writing's on the wall. So a lot of those interviews were conducted over Zoom. To date, Jimmy and I've never met [rescue diver] Dr. Harris. (He lives in Australia.) It's kind of crazy; all the Thailand interviews were done over Zoom. It was challenging; it's all about our interviews and Zoom is not quite the same.

The connection between Free Solo and The Rescue struck me that both free climbing and caving diving are dangerous, all-consuming passions associated with loner types— not a group sport. "Last to be picked for pickleball, but first to be picked for cave diving rescue."

But watching The Rescue, you see the power of this unique talent to help people. Was this call to honor your peculiar passion what you were striving for?

Chin: It was clear to us from the beginning one of the most moving aspects of this story was if you are willing to do the right thing when you have everything to lose. And these guys, they're electricians, IT consultants, a meteorologist. And the fact that they're not professionals, not paid to do this, this is a decision, this is a personal moral decision to do the right thing, even though they have everything to lose. That really struck us and I think that shows the best potential that we all have, as human beings. We love stories about human potential. And in this case, it was about the human moral potential of doing the right thing.

Vasarhelyi: It moves me every time and makes me think, would I do it? They had everything to lose and they really believed saving only one child would be a success. So they walked in understanding the stakes vividly. And yet they couldn't walk away, they were willing to take on the psychological perils, the professional perils, all because they were the only people in the world who could have a chance at saving the children.

The Rescue Cave in Thailand
National Geographic

How did you try to portray the Thai perspective while still focusing on the dive rescue team, who were foreigners?

Vasarhelyi: It's true to the story; all these different people came together, and that includes the Thai Navy Seals and the Thai Army and the US PJ's, the Brits, the Aussies. We are Asian filmmakers and there are very few positive representations of Asians in nonfiction films. So we were committed to listen, closely. We pursued the Thai Navy Seals extensively to participate in the film and allow us to interview them. Same thing with the Thai army, and no one had done that yet.

Chin: We wanted to present the belief systems of the people of northern Thailand and this area—the story of the princess, their belief in monk Kruba Boonchum—to get audiences to hopefully think about how people have different beliefs.

Vasarhelyi: And who is to say the prayers didn't actually save the children?

Chin: It's a minor detail but it represents a lot. We all have different belief systems and who's to say which one is the right one and the wrong one?

Vasarhelyi: Talk about the crazy constraints around this film. After the successful rescue of the children, [the monk] Kruba Boonchumtook a three-year oath of silence and went into a cave for three years.

Chin: So we couldn't interview him.

Vasarhelyi: I said, "I'll send a whiteboard in and he can just answer these questions," and they said no, no. But he [the monk] blessed a bunch of bracelets and sent them to us.

You're a married team, how does that affect working together? How did you meet?

Vasarhelyi: We met at a conference, then we became friends. And then we fell in love while making Meru.

Chin: We had some time to fall in love.

Vasarhelyi: Yes, Meru took a lot of time. We had our first child during Meru then we had our second child during Free Solo.

We have this fundamental trust in each other, and it allows us to make decisions quite easily. It is a synergistic partnership. Free Solo is a very good example of that trust; I trusted Jimmy 100 percent in terms of how we were going to execute it and the risk management, and he also trusted me when I said we really needed a certain shot.

Chin: Or when "we really need to turn this movie into a love story." I'm like, what! We also come from very different worlds and places and sensibilities. And that really helps cover our bases. We each have strengths that we bring to the table and we recognize those in each other.

THE RESCUE is exclusively in theatres starting October 8th.