Even if you don’t remember the 1987 “Baby Jessica” ordeal – with its endless CNN coverage, comments from President Reagan, a Pulitzer photo for rescue coverage, an ABC film starring Beau Bridges and Regis and Kathie Lee- Interview – someone has probably overheard the spirit of Texas history at some point in your life. A caretaker, perhaps believing in the motivating factor of fear, uses the story to warn of the dangers of neglect, the nefarious threat posed by nature, the ubiquitous presence of terrestrial, body-swallowing vacuum cleaners lurking in the tall grass.
Compelling as a narrative, the trope is a very literal projection of Kurt Vonnegut’s infamous “man in hole” story type. Someone gets in trouble, gets out, and ends up better than before. “You see this story over and over again. People love it and it’s not copyrighted,” Vonnegut said. And if there is something about a child in a well, well, who could resist 12 (12!) young people stuck in a cave for 18 (18!) days?
It speaks to why the years since the rescue of a dozen boys and their soccer coach from the flooded limestone cave of Tham Luang in Thailand in July 2018 have seen an incalculable number of screen projects. The cave led the theatrical path in 2019, focusing on rescue diver Jim Warny, who played himself. Last year a Nat Geo documentary came out with the title The rescue, used the body cam footage of divers. Ron Howard gave the story a Hollywood treatment by leading Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell in the Australian take Thirteen Lives, recently released on Prime Video. At least two other studio projects have been announced and have not yet been fulfilled. There is now a revised version of The cave was cut as is for digital release cave rescue.
do you have all this As Al Ruddy, producer of The Godfather said in a recent episode of Marc Maron WTF Podcast “Every film is a film”. Unfortunately, if the film is made about the struggles of the big and small screens of this wondrous tale of survival and heroism, Netflix will take the title Thai cave rescue will at least be able to tout its authenticity as it has both a Thai director and exclusive access to the cave and the boys themselves.
Although there’s a good chance that all the talk here will just wash out is a story about defying odds.
This The limited series version of the rescue begins with a spectacle with the whole world watching: a slow-motion montage of broad-chested, bearded, shirtless men carrying ropes and flippers and oxygen tanks, while Times Squarers and bar-goers around the world look on on screens, like it’s a rocket launch with bated breath. The union aims at the pathos of the moments before the big game of a sports movie, or like a Sunday night football game with the Patriots, or some irrevocable evil that humanity can collectively fight. Of course, if you follow these things, kids-in-well stories almost never end well. (One of Baby Jessica’s rescuers committed suicide after suffering from PTSD. And this one didEnds Well).
Finally we are sent back and sent to the jungle and rain and the exotic setting of “northernmost Thailand” on the border with Myanmar, ramshackle and lush, with verdant vegetation and Opera Mountain ranges forever rising against eerie fog. Vaguely Eastern music sets the mood as we are introduced to a cast of precocious, maybe depressed, half-hopeful boys and their steadfast trainer Ek (Papangkorn Lerkchaleampote). The bevy of mischievous cronies each get their own introduction, character tricks, and backstories, which are briefly plotted while a terrifyingly obnoxious title card counts down the hours until the shit hits the fan and the monsoon fills the cave. It feels vaguely like a more doomed one Stand by Meor maybe stranger things, with youthful and youthful friends – the so-called wild boars – inextricably linked on a journey of self-discovery. Or in this case, a journey that doesn’t starve you, somehow doesn’t make you desperate and wait around while someone figures out how you might not die.
There’s a lot of backstory to create and juxtapose, and so we’re slung around.
A handy storytelling tool, an immediately summoned amateur spelunker knows an almost suspicious amount about the caves, how rain collects there, and how to talk about maps convincingly in a Michael Caine accent, while delivering a command team with wit and metaphor leads. There’s a parking attendant who takes care of it and an interior ministry who doesn’t care. An intern named Noon at the Meteorological Center is disregarded for being a woman, while her pig boss is distracted from soccer and slowed down by fears of authority. Finally we get the local governor (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a seeming father of the situation, more than a hero, soft-eyed and honest. “I believe in science more than faith,” he often says, gently conjuring up sympathetic images of “our boys,” with occasional pauses for half-baked half-time speeches as needed. Highly skilled cave divers from around the world are being called together, as are Thai Navy SEALs and the US military for support and baseball cap bragging rights. A hydraulic engineer appears, frowning and already taking measurements.
The hours tick, in an echo of porn’s nature-giving-zero-fucks predicament 127 hours or open water. You know how it ends, or at least have an idea. But by the middle of the second episode, they’ve been underground for a week, and after some fart jokes, song attempts (“everything but Maroon 5!”) and half-effort at digging, there’s not much for the boys to do but wait and sad be. Ek is certainly a hero to keep the party tight and calm, but there aren’t many plot options. When our protagonists are stuck, there’s a quickly dissolving point of view and little to hold on to for a grounded storytelling center. That has to happen when most of the heroes are supporting characters, when much of the action is idle, and when the true plots of a compelling story are actually scattered around the edges of the stage. On their own, a bevy of parallel rescue efforts taking place outside do not have much in common or great speed. And it’s starting to feel a little like watching Alivewhere snow was replaced with limestone, survivors’ grit was replaced with boredom, without the grisly bits.
Spiritual questions become a race against the clock puzzle piece. “We need a new bailout plan,” the governor seems to be saying every 15 minutes. And plan what they do, vacillating between bad and worse choices: teach the kids to dive once they’re found, drill them out alternative routes, wait months for the end of the monsoon season to dry up the caves. Viewers begin to indirectly learn about hydrology and sonic earthquakes. We get glimpses of drills, then obscene phallic sci-fi drills. There’s something called a dragon pump, something called an aquifer. There are large rulers and weather maps and there is a lot of talk about the water table. In between are the platitudes of life: “The most important duty of family is to love one another”, “sometimes we have to choose family”, guilt over bad goodbyes, reminders that “families are complicated”. Scientists get upset, have revelations, splash water in frustration, and return to the drawing board. Families hold vigils and write letters carried by divers.
Thai Cave Rescue: Limited Series | Official Trailer | Netflix
As interesting and tense as it may seem, the six-hour treatment is starting to feel stagnant and stuck, like one of those coffee rings New Yorker Articles that sit openly on your desk for weeks, too long and perfunctory but with enough investment flair to keep going, if only because the completion gives you enough anecdotal ammunition to make you feel interesting at your next cocktail hour. And you’ll feel interesting because the facts of this story are beyond logistical sense. Which is why, in the end, the whole enterprise of production, all productions thrown together, seems a bit pretentious – at least here, real life would more than suffice even for a Vonnegut storytelling impulse.
A sports film of sorts with an impossibly distant finish line, it actually seems borderline cruel, almost to the point where a trigger warning from parents is needed: watching the children’s guardians go from worry to fear to rage to despair, is a grueling emigration. “The night must come back for his cake,” says a mother planning her son’s birthday for that very day. A belly hit of a line is also easy to wonder. Why the melodrama, stretched out and provided with strings? It’s a guilty privilege to watch late at night from the couch, glancing at a baby monitor to see some children sleeping safe and dry and sound.
As we half-blindly swim toward the conclusion promised right in the show’s title, it’s natural to hope for nothing but less drama, less dramatization, less exposure and exploitation of their horrible-and-then-unlikely happiness. Although the Wild Boars were indeed compensated for their story rights by the Thai Film Board on this project, there seems to be a much deeper wish for something closer to normalcy and distance for the boys and everyone around them. It’s not a wish for closure or redemption, but an ending so they can just move on with more days of sun and fresh air.