There’s something about a kid in a well.
Even if you don’t have registered memory of the 1987 “Baby Jessica” ordeal—with its endless CNN coverage, commentary from President Reagan, a Pulitzer for photography for the rescue coverage, an ABC movie starring Beau Bridges, and the Regis and Kathie Lee interview—somebody has likely harkened the spirit of the Texas tale at some point in your life. Some caretaker, believing in the motivating factor of fear, maybe, using the story to caution on the perils of carelessness, the nefarious threat of nature, the ubiquitous presence of terrestrial body-swallowing vacuums lurking in the tall grass.
Irresistible as a narrative, the trope is a very literal projection of Kurt Vonnegut’s infamous “Man in Hole” story type. Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it, and ends up better than before. “You see this story again and again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted,” Vonnegut said. And if there’s something about a kid in a well, well, who could resist 12 (12!) young ‘un’s stuck in a cave for 18 (18!) days?
Which speaks to why the years since the July 2018 rescue of a dozen boys and their soccer coach from the flooded limestone Tham Luang cave in Thailand have seen a barely countable number of screen projects. The Cave led the theatrical way in 2019, giving focus to rescue diver Jim Warny, who played himself. Last year came a Nat Geo called documentary The Rescue, which used body-cam footage of divers. Ron Howard gave the story a Hollywood treatment, fronting Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell in the Australian-shot Thirteen Lives, recently out on Prime Video. At least two other studio projects have been announced and, so far, unfulfilled. In the meantime, a re-edited version of The Cave has been cut for digital release as Cave Rescue.
Got all that? As Al Ruddy, producer of The Godfather said on a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, “every movie is a movie.” When the movie is made about the makings of the big and small screen efforts of this miraculous story of survival and heroism, Netflix’s unfortunately titled Thai Cave Rescue will at least be able to tout its authenticity as having both a Thai director and exclusive access to the cave and to the boys themselves.
Though it is most probable that all tellings straight wash each other out, here is a story about defying odds.
This limited-series version of the rescue opens with a world-is-watching spectacle: a slow-motion montage of barrel-chested men with beards and without shirts carrying ropes and flippers and oxygen tanks as Times Squarers and pub-goers the world over watch on screens like it’s a beat-breath rocket launch. String-swelling unification aims at the pathos of the moments before a sports movie’s big match, or like a Sunday Night football game featuring the Patriots or some irredeemable evil that humanity can collectively root against. Of course, if you follow these things, kid-in-well stories almost never end well. (One of the rescuers of baby Jessica died by suicide after suffering from PTSD. And that one did end well).
Eventually, we are felt back and plopped into the jungles, and into the rain, and to the exotic backdrop of “Northernmost Thailand,” on the border of Myanmar, ramshackle and lush, with leafy vegetation and operatic mountain ranges spiking forever against eerie mist . Vaguely Eastern-ish music sets the vibe, as we are introduced to a cast of precocious, maybe-bummed, half-hopeful boys and their unflappable coach, Ek (Papangkorn Lerkchaleampote). The gaggle of impish buddies each gets their own introduction, character tics and background stories briefly plotted, as a terrifyingly obnoxious title card counts down the hours until shit hits the fan and monsoons fill the cave. It feels vaguely like a more doomed Stand By Meor maybe Stranger Things, with teen and pre-teen pals—the so-called Wild Boars—inextricably linked on a journey of self-discovery. Or in this case, a journey of not starving, somehow not despairing, and waiting around while someone figures out how they might not die.
There is much backstory to compose and juxtapose, and so we are bounced around.
An instantly summoned amateur cave explorer, making for a convenient narrative device, knows an almost suspicious amount about the caves, how rain gathers therein, and how to talk convincingly in a Michael Caine accent over charts while leading a command team with wit and metaphor. There is a park ranger who cares and a Ministry of the Interior who does not care. An intern named Noon at the meteorological center is not taken seriously because she’s a woman, while her piggish boss dela is distracted by soccer and handicapped by a fear of authority. Eventually, we get the local Governor (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a seeming father of the situation more than a hero, gentle-eyed and honest. “I believe more in science than faith,” he often says, softly conjuring sympathetic images of “our boys,” with occasional breaks for quarter-baked halftime speeches as needed. Highly specialized cave divers are summoned from around the globe, as are Thai Navy Seals, and the US military, for support and baseball-hatted bravado. A hydraulic engineer appears, with furrowed brows and measurements already taken.
The hours tick, in an echo of the nature-gives-zero-fucks predicament porn of 127 hours or open water. You know how it ends up, or at least have an idea. But by the middle of episode two, they’ve already been underground for one week, and after some fart jokes, tries at song (“anything but Maroon 5!”), and half-efforts to dig, there is not much for the boys to do but wait and be sad. Ek is certainly a hero, keeping the group tight and calm, but there aren’t many options for action. With our protagonists stuck, there’s a quickly disintegrating point of view and little to hold onto for a grounded storytelling center. That’s bound to happen when most of the heroes are secondary characters, when much of the action is inaction, and when the real moves of a thrilling story are actually sprinkled around the edges of centerstage. A bevy of parallel rescue efforts outside don’t have much in common or any great velocity happening on their own. And it begins to feel a bit like watching Alivewith snow replaced by limestone, survivor’s grit replaced by ennui, without any of the grisly bits.
Questions of spirit turn into a race-against-the-clock puzzle piece. “We need a new rescue plan,” it seems the Governor is saying every 15 minutes. And plan they do, vacillating between bad and worse choices: teaching the kids scuba diving once they are found, drilling them out by alternative route, waiting months until the end of the monsoon season dries the caves. Viewers begin to learn, obliquely, about hydrology and soundquakes. We get glimpses of drills, then obscenely phallic sci-fi-leaning drills. There is something called a dragon pump, something called an aquifer. There are big rulers and weather charts and much talk of the water table. Between this are the life platitudes: “The most important duty of family is to love each other,” “sometimes we get to choose family,” guilt over bad goodbyes, reminders that “families are complicated.” Scientists get rained on, have epiphanies, splash water in frustration, and go back to the drawing board. Families hold vigils and write letters that are carried by divers.
For as much as it can seem interesting and tense, the six-hour treatment begins to feel stagnant and bogged, like one of those coffee-ringed New Yorker articles that sits open on your desk for weeks, too long and too tangential, but with enough of a feeling of investment to slog on, if only because finishing it will give you enough anecdotal ammunition to feel interesting at your next cocktail hour. And interesting you will feel, because the facts of this story boggle logistical sense. Which is why in the end the entire enterprise of production, of all the productions rolled together, seems a bit ostentatious—here, at least, true life would more than suffice even a Vonnegut storytelling impulse.
As a type of sports movie, with an impossibly distanced finish line, it actually seems borderline cruel, almost to the point of necessitating a parent trigger warning: Watching the children’s guardians’ shifts from concern to dread to frenzy to despair is a grueling churn. “Night must come back for his cake,” says one mother, planning her son’s birthday for that very day. A gut punch of a line, it is also easy to wonder. Why the melodrama, stretched and string-scored? There’s a guilt-ridden privilege to watch from the couch, late at night, with a glimpse at a baby monitor to see some kids sleeping safe and dry and sound.
As we swim half-blind toward the conclusion that is promised right in the title of the show, it is natural to hope for nothing but less drama, less dramatization, less exposure and exploitation of their terrible and then improbably good luck. Though on this project the Wild Boars were actually compensated, through the Thai Film Board, for their story rights, it seems far deeper to wish, for the boys and everyone around them, for something closer to normalcy and remove. It’s not a desire for a conclusion or release, but rather an end, so that they can simply get on with more days of sunshine and fresh air.