When you get right down to it, the most memorable documentaries serve the same basic purpose as narrative films: telling stories, complete with interesting characters, compelling conflicts, and suspenseful climaxes.
The Rescue—the latest effort from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the creative duo behind the phenomenal Free Solo (which should have at least been nominated for Best Cinematography)—spins a tale that sounds like it was torn straight out of a Hollywood disaster flick. It features pretty much all of the structural elements you’d expect to find in such cheesy blockbusters as The Poseidon Adventure and Armageddon: children in peril, underdog heroes, obstructive (albeit not entirely unreasonable) authority figures, a ticking clock, an audacious and risky plan, and a heartwarming resolution that borders on miraculous.
Indeed, had The Rescue been a scripted drama starring, for example, Josh Brolin or Tom Cruise (who would probably insist on doing his own cave diving stunts), it would have strained credulity; the plot hinges on far too many contrivances and coincidences, and the outcome is way too tidy. The movie succeeds only because its very nature as a documentary—assembled from actual footage of the eponymous rescue (with occasional staged reenactments)—proves that its premise wasn’t fabricated by a particularly unimaginative writer. The pasty-white, socially-awkward, middle-aged British guys in the talking head interviews really did overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles (monsoons, floods, limited visibility, a dwindling air supply) to save every single member of that Thai soccer team—a triumph of the human spirit that feels utterly at odds with the ugly, decaying, sinful world that we currently inhabit.
I guess the old cliché holds water, after all: the truth is stranger than fiction—and in this case, that knowledge is extremely reassuring.