'The Rescue' directors explain why they left Elon Musk out of their acclaimed documentary about the 2018 Thai cave rescue

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The new documentary, The Rescue, depicts the Thai cave rescue that captured the world's attention in 2018. (Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films)
The new documentary The Rescue depicts the Thai cave rescue that captured the world's attention in 2018. (Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films)

For two-and-a-half weeks in the summer of 2018, the eyes of the world were focused on Northern Thailand, where a real-life disaster movie was playing out in real time. On June 23, twelve teenage soccer players and their adult coach made their way through Tham Luang Nang Non cave just outside the town of Chiang Rai. Before they could make their return trip, heavy rainfall and flooding from the monsoon storms cut off their exit and stranded them deep within a system of narrow underwater passageways that were impossible to navigate without diving equipment.

Rescuing the team became an intensive international operation that included the Thai and U.S. militaries, multiple teams of engineers and a group of British divers, who hatched a daring — and possibly foolhardy — plan that ultimately got them out alive. That story is dramatically re-told in The Rescue, the latest documentary from Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the married filmmakers behind the Oscar-winning 2018 non-fiction hit Free Solo. After an acclaimed run on the fall film festival circuit, with stops at Telluride and Toronto, the movie opens in theaters on Oct. 8.

But there's one part of the story that the directors consciously chose to leave out: Elon Musk's offer to aid the rescue mission. The billionaire entrepreneur became part of the rapidly-evolving news story — even traveling to the rescue site — and continued to make headlines after the team was saved for publicly quarreling with some of the rescuers involved. "It wasn't Elon's finest moment," Vasarhelyi tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "It takes away from what is important in the story, so we made an explicit decision not to include it because we're only including the essential parts of the story."

As depicted in the film, before the officials in charge of the rescue decided on their final plan of action, they were flooded with advice and offers of help from numerous organizations and individuals. Musk stepped forward and offered the services of his engineers at SpaceX and the Boring Company. Among the ideas Musk's team pitched — many of which he documented on Twitter — was a "kid-sized submarine" that could be carried by divers. Ultimately, his suggestions weren't used in the operation, and he cheered on the successful rescue from the sidelines on July 10 when it was announced that all members of the team were safe.

Later that same day, though, Musk took offense when one of the rescue officials said that his submarine technology was "not practical" for the operation. But a more serious fallout occurred on July 15 when one of the British cave divers, Vern Unsworth, labeled the kid-sized submarine "a PR stunt" in an interview with CNN. Musk immediately responded with a series of since-deleted tweets in which he described Unsworth as a "pedo guy." He publicly apologized on Twitter three days later, but Unsworth sued him for defamation in September 2018. The case went before an L.A. federal court the following year and Musk was ultimately found not liable in December 2019.

Asked whether the subjects they interviewed for The Rescue viewed Musk's initial gesture as genuine, Vasarhelyi says that he was "absolutely genuine in his offer to help." Adds Chin: "There were a lot of well-intentioned people, and not all of them make the film. They have to add to the narrative in a way that's meaningful to move the story forward. Those are the editorial choices that you make as a filmmaker." (Both directors declined to comment on Musk's Twitter fight with Unsworth, and the ensuing court case.)

"There's so much to the story, and there were a lot of people who volunteered, and it just wasn't a great moment for anyone involved in that," Vasarhelyi continues. "That would just take away from the heart of the story." She does hope that Musk watches The Rescue regardless. "I'm sure he will see the film."

Filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi (L) and Jimmy Chin pose during the press day for their new documentary
Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin during a press day for their latest fil The Rescue. (Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

The beating heart of The Rescue's story — and one of the reasons why the movie has dazzled festival audiences — is in the way it brings to life how different countries can unite in times of crisis to achieve a common goal. "That was something that appealed to us in 2018," Chin says of when they were first approached with the offer to make the film. "Given where the world was and where the country was politically and just the polarization, this is a story where people really came together from literally different continents, countries, cultures and religious beliefs. It really shows the best of what we can be as humans."

Unlike Free Solo, where both directors spent years following professional climber Alex Honnold and filmed his attempts to summit Yosemite's famed El Capitan, they had to tell the story of The Rescue after it had already happened. "It created this forensic situation where we were scouring the news trying to get a sense of what transpired," Vasarhelyi explains. "There really was very little footage [at first], so we relied heavily on our first-person interviews."

Eventually, the filmmakers were granted permission to use footage that Thai Navy SEALs had filmed during the rescue, including scenes of the young soccer players being anesthetized prior to being carried out by the British divers. (The children were sedated at regular intervals in order to avoid them panicking.) But there was still little to no underwater footage of the rescue, and the directors ultimately decided to film reenactments with the divers in a water tank at England's famed Pinewood Studios.

A diver navigates treacherous underwater terrain while on a life-saving mission in the documentary, The Rescue (Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films)
The Rescue includes reenactments of how a team of British divers helped rescue the stranded Thai soccer team. (Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films)

"That was very valuable to us because we weren't there for the actual rescue — no one was," says Vasarhelyi. "So to have the divers show us what they did was not only a special way of maintaining authenticity, but there's also certain things you can only understand when you experience it, like the gravity of tying children's arms behind their back and submerging their faces underwater. You see that, and it's a lot!"

The finished film seamlessly moves between the Navy SEALs footage and the reenactments, immersing viewers in how perilous the operation was. "The reenactments were essential in this case," Vasarhelyi notes. "I don't have any problem with documentaries using reenactments if it's to best convey the truth of the story."

The duo's next non-fiction feature, which they're currently editing, is closer to the first person experience they enjoyed with Free Solo. That film will profile the late conservationist Douglas Tompkins, his widow Kris Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard. "They're the original eco-warriors," Chin says of their subjects, who also ran major outdoor clothing companies. (Douglas Tompkins co-founded The North Face, while Chouinard founded Patagonia, where Kris Tompkins previously worked as CEO.)

"Sadly, the story's only become more poignant as we're living through natural disaster after natural disaster," Chin continues. "If there is a similarity [to our other films], it's about achieving what might be seemingly impossible. What they achieved would seem completely outrageous if you didn't actually see it happen. But they also defined a whole culture: outdoor adventure, surfing life, climbing life. We're really excited about that film — it's really a big love story."

The Rescue opens Friday, Oct. 8 in theaters.