No, ‘The Cave,’ gets its facts right. I would know. (Opinion)

Former Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn schools ‘The Cave’ director Tom Waller as Belgian-Irish rescue diver Jim Warny, who plays himself in the film, looks on Monday at a screening in Lampang province.
Former Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn schools ‘The Cave’ director Tom Waller as Belgian-Irish rescue diver Jim Warny, who plays himself in the film, looks on Monday at a screening in Lampang province.

(Editor’s Note: This is written from the perspective of someone who closely covered last year’s events from the scene and also participated in its retelling playing a role as himself in ‘The Cave.” Leaning into informed opinion and relaxed rules of engagement, here.)

From rescue commander to film critic? Four days after a dramatic account of last year’s cave rescue saga opened in theaters, a dispute over its authenticity erupted today, led by one official the film rubbed the wrong way.

The public face of last year’s rescue operation browbeating the director and denouncing his film as fiction before the hapless audience gathered to see it Monday ricocheted from social media into mainstream coverage today.

“Honestly, I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve seen the teaser… but even the teaser does not reflect the truth. And right now the movie is getting a lot of criticism,” former Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn scolded director Tom Waller before rolling cameras at what was meant to be a pre-screening photo op.

Rescue hero Sgt. Sam’s family given sales from special showing of ‘The Cave’

For anyone needing a reminder, Narongsak had already been pink-slipped from his governorship when the 13 stepped into Tham Luang on June 23, 2018, but was allowed to see the operation through before getting the boot. He absolutely deserves credit for his role in the operation’s success, even if most of the decision heavy-lifting happened outside his purview.

Back to Lampang, where, after admitting he hadn’t seen the film he was critiquing, Narongsak then reportedly walked out of the theater three minutes after it started.

Anyone who regularly follows Thailand needn’t be told that loud denials from brass-studded bureaucrats are a tell. A clue that something arrived a little too close to the truth for their comfort.

What so salted him enough to put on a show in front of the cameras?

Was it the film’s few mild depictions of career bureaucrats being anything short of efficient, resolute, responsive and accountable? Again, nothing that would remotely surprise anyone who’s interfaced with any level of the civil service.

I put that question to Waller today, who said he would not comment any further in light of the current shitstorm.

We gave our ‘The Cave’ hot take and interviewed Director Tom Waller on the latest episode of The Coconuts Podcast

The scene in question is one in which pump-maker Nopadol “Pooyai Tan” Niyomka (portrayed remarkably by none other than Nopadol “Pooyai Tan” Niyomka) and Ajarn Adisorn Sirinantanaporn (also “as himself”) are rudely turned away by Unnamed Sneering Park Ranger in the film’s only “what a jerk!” moment.

Why did this so inflame Narongsak? Was it because The Cave has been trending hard among the reliably yoo-mai-pen Twitter dissidents for some realistic representations of Thai officialdom?

Whelp. Multiple people with direct knowledge of the real events have told me it was Narongsak himself who turned away Nopadol, who had trucked his desperately needed water pumps halfway across the kingdom, using the same words used in the film’s scene.

They, for obvious reasons, did not want to be named and it is for that reason I am labeling this opinion.

That explanation goes a long way to understanding Narongsak’s demand Monday for “unity,” that authoritarian fallback of the powerful when they feel threatened by humbling accountability (a self-defeating impulse, in this case, as now everyone will know it was him).

“In reality, the movie should really encourage people all over the world to unite because that’s what the rescue was about,” Narongsak tells Waller at yesterday’s event. “But that’s not what’s reflected in the film.”

The scene in question with unnamed park official, at left, and Adisorn Sirinantanaporn, at right.
The scene in question with unnamed park official, at left, and Adisorn Sirinantanaporn, at right.

Waller, who would not talk to me for this story, all but said the scene depicted Narongsak in his response today to the governor’s takedown.

“He said the movie is not based on reality, and he’s right. There’s a scene that’s inaccurate when the park ranger turned away Ajarn Adisorn and told him to go back to show off in Nakhon Pathom,” Tom wrote in Thai in a post that went viral this morning. “In reality, it’s not him [the park ranger] who said it but someone who only had the opportunity to only watch three minutes of the film.”

Messages attributed today to Adisorn appear, without naming Narongsak, to back that up as well.

Thus the possibility that an important guy cried “fake movie” about something he hadn’t seen and then refused to sit through because he felt embarrassed would strike many as just another Monday.

Thai power structures skip the “alternative facts” and curb-stomp the truth because important fictions are preferred. For this Thailand long appeared to be trailing the bend of history; now it looks ahead of that curve, but I digress.

Yeah, I took a selfie when shooting a scene in the real cave this past January. Wouldn't you?
Yeah, I took a selfie when shooting a scene in the real cave this past January. Wouldn’t you?

So how factual is the movie?

As someone who closely covered the real thing from the scene and participated in Waller’s film, I can say it gets far more right than any reasonable audience would expect from a dramatization.

If anything, my initial impression was that it actually went too far in portraying those most-promoted pillars of Thai society, its green- and saffron-clad institutions of authority, as being far more functional than they are.

I said as much to Waller at a Sunday evening panel discussion of the film, though, of course, I disingenuously framed the criticism as a question.

Covering the rescue operation on July 6, 2018, with my former colleague Jintamas Saksornchai.
Covering the rescue operation on July 6, 2018, with my former colleague Jintamas Saksornchai.

Even the funniest of its several laugh-out-loud moments, a cameo by a certain coup-maker turned-PM, is based on the actual things he said. I didn’t believe that until Belgian-Irish rescue diver Jim Warny confirmed it Sunday.

I only agreed to participate because Waller seemed sincere about his fidelity to the truth. My contribution was recreating the Facebook live broadcasts I delivered from the scene in Chiang Rai. My lines were lifted from those directly, and Waller let me suggest tweaks to be more authentic. For several days of shooting, I received a few thousand baht – so feel free to dismiss me as a shill.

But Todd, those who know me would ask, surely you, who virtue-flex from the ethical high-ground about any perceived conflicts of interest cannot be considered unbiased? Absolutely, but my tendency to paranoid overcompensation had me certain the film would be a stinker.

It took a second viewing to confirm my initial impression that it’s a surprisingly good movie that deftly handles its narrative challenges – how do you make a drama about something that went according to plan? – while taking scant license with its details, apart from a few minor sequencing and placement moments, while also delivering an enjoyable payoff at the end.

Even several character moments I assumed were invented turned out, upon interrogation, to have been based on factual accounts.

The Cave is a highly journalistic film, both overtly as a recounting of history, and also indirectly, as an illustration of Thailand’s pathologies going into the millennium’s second decade, which Gov. Narongsak has now backed in sharp relief.

Given the crush of Hollywood holiday fare, Wednesday is likely the last day it can be easily found showing in Thailand.

Related:

Thailand to get first look at ‘The Cave’ movie

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