The six-part Netflix limited series Thai Cave Rescue doesn’t have it easy. How do you make the 18-day Tham Luang Nang Non ordeal captivating when the story of a dozen adolescent to teen soccer players and their coach trapped deep inside the flooded cave system has been told over and over?
Never mind the wall-to-wall media coverage during the incident and grueling rescue operation just four years ago. There have already been three movies covering this terrain, including Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary The Rescue and Ron Howard’s thrillingly restrained Thirteen Lives.
Thai Cave Rescue – with its amusingly basic title that seems engineered for the best SEO results – fares pretty well, despite the redundancies. Just make sure you watch it in the native Thai audio track with subtitles instead of the awkward English dub that the Netflix platform automatically reverts to.
The series, created by Michael Russell Gunn and Dana Ledoux Miller, is not quite as elegant and gripping as Howard’s movie starring Hollywood heavyweights like Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton as the divers who pulled the Wild Boars soccer team out of the cave. Thai Cave Rescue is the more exhaustive, melodramatic and occasionally heavy-handed telling that has one crucial ingredient the movies don’t: the soccer team’s perspective.
Netflix and SK Global won exclusive rights to the Wild Boars soccer team’s story in a deal secured by their country’s government. We get to know the players, their families and the emotional baggage they carried with them deep into that cave. And the story is told with a sensitivity to local nuances thanks to Thai director Baz Poonpiriya and American-Thai film-maker Kevin Tancharoen, both executive producing alongside Jon M Chu (the Taiwanese American director behind Crazy Rich Asians).
Chu memorably tweeted the day after the real-life rescue that he refuses to let Hollywood whitewash this story, a warning shot to the other movies that would ultimately privilege the narratives of the British and Australian divers whose plan to anesthetize and courier the boys through the treacherous underwater passages miraculously worked.
“There’s a beautiful story [about] human beings saving other human beings,” Chu wrote. “So anyone thinking [about] the story better approach it right [and] respectfully.”
Thai Cave Rescue distinguishes itself immediately in a brief prologue that celebrates the all-hands-on-deck community gathered to reach the boys on the final day of the rescue. That includes the Thai Navy Seals, American military support, foreign engineers and divers, local politicians, farmers, park rangers, volunteers and even those simply sending prayers from across the world.
The series then rewinds to introduce every child, beginning with 11-year-old Titan (Pratya “Tiger” Patong) and his coach Eak (Papangkorn “Beam” Lerkchaleampote, who passed away earlier this year at 25). Titan slept over at Eak’s place, seeking refuge from his warring parents. Eak, an orphan raised in a Buddhist monastery, has grown into a stable guide to the younger kids. He preaches early on about chosen families, telegraphing his role as their father figure for the next 18 days (and beyond for those kids who have hostile environments at home).
The intimacy with these characters naturally makes the series more affecting, even if some of the performances are a bit stilted and raw. The earlier episodes are pretty rough, especially when the writers desperately seek levity in a story that doesn’t often leave such breathing room. Small gags are thrown into heavy or tense moments where they land with a thud.
There’s more confidence in later episodes. The performances begin to click and the playful camaraderie among the young soccer team and those on the outside waiting to pull them out feels like an appropriate remedy to their dire situation.
Veteran singer turned actor Thaneth Warakulnukroh is the standout among the cast. He finds reserves of empathy and grace notes in his performance as Governor Narongsak, the man tasked with overseeing the rescue, responding to parents, politicians and the media while managing an impossible situation.
In a later episode, Narongsak presents the soccer team parents with the only options before him: send supplies for the boys to hopefully survive months in the cave until the monsoon season subsides or try for the immediate underwater rescue. He advises that they opt for the rescue, explaining that both scenarios will probably end in death, but one is quick and the other is slow. The gravity of every decision he makes – and the strength needed to even consider them – really hit with that one exchange.
The most galvanizing episode is dedicated to fallen Navy Seal Saman Gunan, known as Ja Sam (Suppakorn “Tok” Kitsuwan), and his wife Maew (Tusrin “Oui” Punpae). Ja Sam died after losing consciousness while transporting oxygen tanks through Tham Luang in preparation for the rescue.
Throughout the episode, he regularly checks in on Maew. They have warm and bittersweet conversations in which he shares his hope that his volunteer stint at Tham Luang will be complete so he can return home and join her for the cycling marathon they both have been training for. A match cut between Maew’s headlight as she navigates bike paths in Bangkok at night and Ja Sam’s flashlight as he makes his final journey through Tham Luang is one of the most deeply felt onscreen edits in recent memory. It’s also a fitting tribute to the people whose story is not celebrated enough in all the movies about this rescue.