Three years ago, at the same time as it was gathering momentum for its eventual Best Documentary Oscar win, “Free Solo” was also spurring conversation about the ethics of how it came to be. Climaxing with free-climbing enthusiast Alex Honnold attempting to complete a peer-through-your-fingers journey up Yosemite’s El Capitan sans rope, harness or general concern of his own mortality, “Free Solo” triggers our questioning of the needless pressure created by cameras on the ground, and of crew members unable to look the closer Honnold gets to his goal. At what point is he being exploited for audience thrills? Some will argue the fact he comes clean about his emotional detachment when scaling up rock faces thousands of feet above the ground gives the filmmakers some leeway to work with, and that “Free Solo” compensates by anchoring Honnold, the person, in the hardened substance of Honnold, the death-defier.
It was even more tempting to think co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi got away with something as soon as their subject scampers over the top of the cliff’s edge. “Why are they doing this?” is replaced with “How did he do that?”, though the movie remains an entry point to deciphering where the lines are drawn.
“The Rescue,” Chin and Vasarhelyi’s briskly paced and serviceable follow-up about the massive 2018 effort to save a Thai youth soccer team trapped in a slowly flooding cave, plays like the filmmakers are constantly steering clear of those lines. Unfolding with chronological matter-of-factness that’s more sensible than revealing, “The Rescue” ticks off the boxes wherever you expect it to, fulfilling expectations without doing very much to thwart them. This is a National Geographic-produced documentary, as was “Free Solo,” though for better and for worse you sense the Nat Geo-ness to a sharper degree with the dollops of saccharine music and plainly Western gaze. “Free Solo” is just as thrilling when soaring by sky-high cliffs as when Chin and Vasarhelyi fashion themselves into psychological explorers by closely charting their subject’s inexplicable hobby. “The Rescue’s” summits find the co-directors peering across wider horizons but a less captivating vista, anchoring their perspective in the British divers whose fearlessness is less something to probe and more a motor to propel the movie forward. It culminates in a very different triumph of human spirit than Honnold’s conquering of El Capitan, but in keeping their subjects at arm’s length, it also feels more subdued.
Those subjects, to be sure – and even when the movie’s focus on them comes off as a bit lopsided – are fascinating personalities. It’s a group of close friends who are IT personnel and accountants and meteorologists by day, and who would seem more at home at your neighbor’s summer cookout than spelunking deep dark depths with a homemade breathing apparatus because the Earth’s arteries are too narrow for commercial equipment. It sounds nightmarish, and in the documentary’s astounding caving sequences it looks nightmarish...but strangely wondrous too. “Probably the purest adventure you could have,” one of the divers declares at the moment you realize they should call up Honnold and chat about their daredevilry over a beer.
We only have so much time to get to know the eventual heroes when there are logistics and challenges for “The Rescue” to parse through, however. And so while the gaggle of Brits are expertly suited to narrate their surreal experience talking potential rescue efforts over with camo-wearing military commanders while sporting cargo shorts and T-shirts a size too big, they end up conglomerating into one personality while in talking-head form. Theirs is a fish-out-of-water tale of the most urgent kind—the rainclouds of Thailand loom ever darker and the eyes of the world are peering ever closer, desperate for a hero to emerge. “The Rescue” reaches its emotional zenith in its attempts at squaring the divers’ selflessness with the uncertainty that was the only constant in this equation. After all, for a time no one even knew if the kids were alive, and the moment when the divers finally find them – relayed in blurry but wholly captivating footage – is one that must be seen to be believed.
What comes next is as dramatic and enrapturing as it should be for a tale such as this, insofar as your ability to get caught up in the thrilling rush of by-the-hour problem-solving while taking “The Rescue” at its word that confusingly rendered computer models of the cave network holds some import. That there’s a stop-start stiffness to the doc’s momentum might just be a side effect of Chin and Vasarhelyi closely following every potential plan to their natural dead end, but it’s more or less paid off when what’s initially the most ludicrous rescue scheme reveals itself to be their best possible shot. Suffice to say you’ll gain new appreciation for how this was all pulled off, even if “The Rescue” boils together one contingent of this story’s figures at best (the rescue divers) or leaves them out entirely at worst (practically anyone connected to the boys themselves).
There’s a satisfying symmetry Chin and Vasarhelyi have created with their last two features, the way “Free Solo” is about reaching for the sky while the adventurers in “The Rescue” probe pitch-black depths. No crevice in nature is safe from being touched by human hands, and while that’s something humanity has exploited, Chin and Vasarhelyi continue to be adamant about glimpsing the awe-inspiring within the utterly frightening. You’re likely to feel hefty doses of both emotions while watching “The Rescue,” even as this retelling’s overt sense of narrative and stylistic caution feels at odds with the bravery at the story’s core.
"The Rescue" is rated PG for thematic material involving peril and some language. It's now screening in San Antonio theaters.
Featuring: Jim Warny, Thanet Natisri, John Volanthen, Derek Anderson
Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
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