Intrigue, unfathomable danger, tragedy and ultimate triumph: the story of 12 boys and their football coach who were rescued from deep inside a cave in Thailand after an incredible international rescue operation had all the ingredients of a riveting tale. It is not surprising, therefore, that six films have been announced in quick succession on their 18-day ordeal and return to safety despite the odds.
The first off the block was Discovery Channel’s 40-minute documentary Operation Thai Cave Rescue, which was announced a day after all 13 were safely evacuated on July 10 and was premiered in the United States of America on July 13. The documentary was aired in India this Friday.
With Operation Thai Cave Rescue, Discovery was faced with a tall order: to add to a story that had been closely tracked across the world, with in-depth reports from journalists on the spot and video footage from the rescue team. But it also had the first mover’s advantage, being one of the earliest documentaries to examine the rescue mission in depth and put together the fragments of information that emerged in the days since the boys went missing on June 23.
By the time the show was aired in India, however, several details of the rescue operation had been widely covered – the divers had spoken to various media outlets and the boys had addressed their first press conference, giving a first-hand account of their time in the cave.
To that extent, Operation Thai Cave Rescue does not have too much new to offer to those Indian viewers who had tracked the riveting mission as it unfolded. Still, it adds value to the news coverage by bringing all the information together while celebrating the heroes of the story – the divers and military personnel who put their lives on the line for what many have described as the most dangerous rescue mission in recent history.
The documentary manages to impress upon viewers the dangers that lurk inside Chiang Rai’s Tham Luang cave, where the 13 were stranded, to understand what makes it such a death trap. It takes a tour of its pitch-black crevices, menacing-looking stalactites and narrow passageways, some barely two-feet in height. In these claustrophobic pathways, a sudden spell of heavy rain can lock in water and block off all exits, turning what could have been an exciting trek into a death-defying ordeal. That is what happened to the 12 players of the Wild Boars soccer team, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, when they ventured to the cave for a picnic after football practice.
Through interviews with divers, members of the rescue teams, psychologists and relatives, the documentary manages to explore the many facets of the 18-day exploration – emotional, physical and technical – that make this a story like no other.
It offers a day-by-day account of the massive effort, starting with the discovery of a row of bikes lined outside the mouth of the cave that alerted authorities to the boys’ location. It also explains what made this rescue mission so uniquely dangerous, and its success so miraculous. Interviews with the rescue team reveal that cave diving, an inherently risky task, proved to be near-impossible with the Tham Laung cave’s complex geography.
Divers explained that for eight days, they couldn’t go much beyond the cave’s entrance. “It’s called looking for the victims but it’s really just feeling around,” said Edd Sorenson, a technical cave diver, explaining how they struggled to locate the boys (they were finally found on July 2). Some of the passages were less than 20 inches wide, so slim that divers would have to take off their oxygen tanks to pass through.
The documentary also highlights the emotional thrust of the story, through moving footage of relatives waiting anxiously outside the cave for days upon days, and messages sent by the boys to their parents through the divers, asking them not to worry, promising to be more responsible when they come home, and requesting their favourite food.
It counts down the tense days and the many fraught moments before the international team could finally start bringing the boys out – four at a time, across three days – with each day bringing new dangers and challenges, thanks to the “complex geography, rushing waters and ticking clock”, the narrator spells out.
These tense moments are interspersed with shots of rain lashing the trees outside the cave, an otherwise picturesque sight turning ominous. That danger was amplified with the death of 28-year-old Saman Kunan, on July 6, a former Thai Navy SEAL who suffocated while making his way out the cave after bringing supplies to the boys. As the threat mounts, the documentary explains how the rescue team now had to devise a new plan to take the boys out, one that involved taking into account their emotional as well as physical health. It was a mission where countless things could go wrong. Miraculously, everything went right.
And so, even as it tells a story that is going to be recounted manytimes hence, Operation Thai Cave Rescue manages to keep the focus on something that is worth the multiple iterations – the bravery of the hundreds who risked their life day after day in what an expert described as “the greatest rescue operation in recent history”.