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Thailand Cave Rescue: Two Amazing Films

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
August 7, 2022; ported here on June 4, 2024

First a personal note: I've had sort of a tough couple of months. June was super-busy with travel, then my family got Covid at the end of June (thanks to the travel), which hit my wife and me relatively hard. During all this I began a project on Colorado politics that has taken me much longer to wrap up than I originally anticipated (more details soon). Then, just when I thought I was ready to get back to regular weight lifting after Covid, I tripped on a curb last night and landed hard on a big rock. Hopefully I just have bruising and spraining; I may go in for a scan to see if there's worse damage. It could have been worse—I could have absorbed the fall with my face rather than with my ribs, forearm, and shoulder. All of this is not to complain—by global and historical standards I live a blessed life—but to indicate why I've been relatively quiet lately. (I've remained active on Twitter, if you follow me there.)

I wanted to take a quick break from my big project to recommend two related films, both about the Thailand cave rescue of 2018, and both astonishing. The first is a Ron Howard film featuring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, Thirteen Lives, recently released on Amazon. The second is the National Geographic documentary, The Rescue, available on DisneyPlus.

On June 23, 2018, twelve boys and their soccer coach went into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. While they were inside, the seasonal rains arrived early, partly flooding the cave and trapping the boys. This prompted an international rescue effort in which hobbyist, but highly skilled, cave divers from around the world played a major role.

An early source of tension was that the Thai Navy SEALS thought they would be able to handle the rescue on their own, but the older cave-diving hobbyists turned out to have a highly refined skill set and much better gear to handle the flooded cave.

For days it was far from clear that "rescue operation" was the appropriate term. Had the boys managed to find sanctuary amidst the rushing waters and flooded tunnels? If so, could the divers find them? If divers did manage to find the boys, could they bring them out alive? That last problem turned out to be the hardest one. The solution they came up with is just shocking. The emotional and political pressure those divers faced was enormous. Failure was possible at so many junctures.

Also key to the effort was a large-scale water diversion project to keep as much water out of the cave as possible. Watching these people work together in such an important cause, where what mattered was working the problem, is awe-inspiring.

I recommend that, without reading anything else about the story, you watch the Howard film, then follow up a day or two later with the documentary. The Howard film will give you the general flow of the story. The documentary will fill in some details, give you an excellent sense of the personalities of the extraordinary cave divers, and reveal where Howard took a bit of artistic license. I felt like I needed to watch both films to emotionally absorb the story and marvel at the focused thinking and exhausting effort involved. If I had to recommend only one film, I'd choose the documentary (which involves reenacted sequences.) I urge you to grapple with this story in some way. What you will witness starkly manifest is competence.

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