At the close of each year, we poll members of the Realscreen team to find out what non-fiction and unscripted programming drew them in, and this year is no exception. For the second installment in our look at what we loved to watch in 2021, we hear from news editor Andrew Jeffrey. Part one can be found here.
Heading into this year, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s follow-up to Oscar winner Free Solo was already one of the most anticipated documentary features of 2021.
But the timing of the film’s release, opening to theaters in October after many cinemas around the world had remained closed for much of the COVID-19 pandemic, did wonders for the experience of watching their new film. What’s already a gripping feature in The Rescue, was made all the more exciting by the chance to see it on the big screen this fall.
In fact, The Rescue to me is an improvement over their Oscar-winning effort about rock climber Alex Honnold performing a free solo climb. The Rescue combines the same skill that Vasarhelyi and Chin showed previously at tense, dread-inducing filmmaking, but now with an even more engaging story.
The Rescue covers the 2018 rescue of 12 kids from a junior soccer team and their coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand. The Tham Luang Nang Non cave rescue mission from the summer of 2018 was a massive operation and a major global news story at the time. So captivating, in fact, that a Ron Howard-directed drama starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, based on the cave rescue, is scheduled for a 2022 release.
But it’s a testament to Vasarhelyi and Chin’s abilities as suspenseful, dramatic documentary filmmakers that their film is able to keep audiences feeling anxious about the the film’s race against the clock and the fate of the soccer team, despite the rescue being widely covered only three years ago.
Similarly to Free Solo, much of the suspense comes from the film calmly laying out the life-and-death stakes of the mission, the possibilities of what could go wrong and the ease with which the plan could fall apart. The heroes at the center of the story are compelling, and Vasarhelyi and Chin’s filmmaking is once again breathtaking, making The Rescue a spectacular cinematic experience — something that was sorely lacking with theaters closed through much of the pandemic.