National Geographic Documentary Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 10/7/21
Opens: October 8, 2021
There are many terrible ways to die aside from what you see in some movies like the “Saw” series. How about becoming asphyxiated on your own saliva? Talk about your own body turning on you! Yet this is one of the principal fears of the people from England, Australia, China and Thailand as they map out a strategy to rescue twelve male children and their soccer coach figuratively imprisoned inside a cave in Chiang Mai. In a movie featuring terrific editing and cinematography, using both clear and colorful file film and some reenactments, National Geographic, taking good advantage of the direction by the husband and wife team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, give us a front-row seat on a drama. Had we not known the ending, this could have been the suspense thriller of the year. There is no way that a typical audience member could have conceived that any of the lads would emerge alive after spending over two weeks deep inside their tour of a cave with only occasional bits of food supplied by their rescuers. One thing the heroes could not have given to them was oxygen. The biggest concern was that the kids and their coach would run out of air, which at one time was three points under the amount needed for survival.
In the same way that Americans are transfixed these days on the plight of the murdered woman Gabby Petito and the chief suspect Brian Laundrie, the entire world followed the disaster facing the children in 2018, the efforts of the trained adults to reach them and bring them all out was flashed around the world with TV newscasters relying on the emotions of their listeners to keep tuned in.
The directing duo, known by some for the 2015 “Meru” about the efforts by three elite climbers to conquer the Himalayan Mount Meru, outdo themselves this time around. Instead of dealing with mature, adult mountain climbers, their stars include vulnerable children ages eleven to sixteen who, in the many shots appear to take their danger in stride. They smile at the camera, their clasp their hands together as though in prayer, and while they sometimes say that they are hungry, they appear to react in a more grown-up way than you might expect if they were Americans trapped in one of the scores of caves found in our own country. Doubtless many who followed the action inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Mai which trapped the thirteen after heavy rains flooded potential escape routes believed that the potential rescue was hopeless. And when you see the monsoons that made the job even more difficult, and how thousands of liters of water get pumped out yet only a few centimeters of depth are created, you figure a major national tragedy is at hand.
The biggest heroes are not the brave folks of the Thai Navy Seals who are not trained for this but are Rick Stanton and John Volanthen who import themselves into Northern Thailand and may prompt many to wonder what two middle-aged guys can do that the military could not. These UK citizens had to navigate the cave for almost three miles, and though they come face to face with the hapless kids, they are unable to do anything for them immediately. In fact during one of the rescue missions they took fifteen body bags with them which, if seen by the children would not exactly inspire their good spirits.
The problem? How to escort them through the waters for a journey that would take hours. Nor did it raise the spirits of the rescue party that one Thai Seal died from lack of oxygen. Enter injections of Ketamine and Atropine to anesthetize the kids and off everyone goes to the surface, the English heroes to receive an awards from the queen.
A documentary that includes interviews along with some file film not previously wraps up, the production team presumably hoping that those of us watching from our safe movie seats (vaccinated and masked and in less danger than the cave dwellers) with be choked up with emotion. Prepare to see this drama considered by awards groups for Documentary Movie, Cinematography and Editing.
107 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-