In 'The Rescue,' a perilous underwater mission in focus

  • "The Rescue" documents how volunteers rescued 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in 2018.

    "The Rescue" documents how volunteers rescued 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in 2018. Courtesy of National Geographic

 
 
Posted10/10/2021 7:20 AM

NEW YORK -- Richard Stanton, the elite British cave diver who helped lead the mission to save 12 boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018, isn't much for movies. Stanton will without hesitation plunge into the murkiest of waters, but he rarely sets foot inside a darkened movie theater.

"I've got no interest in films," says Stanton. "I can't remember the last time I went to the cinema."

 

Stanton, 60, is partial to "Apollo 13" -- a good thing, since its director, Ron Howard, is making a movie about Stanton and the other divers who made possible the Tham Luang cave rescue. (Viggo Mortensen is playing Stanton.)

But Stanton, one of Britain's foremost cave divers, has, in fact, been to the movies lately. A lot. Within days of its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month, Stanton had seen "The Rescue," Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's riveting nonfiction account of the underwater ordeal, five times. At first, he says, it was "a bit weird."

"We were just like, 'Well, that's it, then,'" Stanton, a retired firefighter prone to pragmaticism. "But the more I've seen it, the more intricate and the more layers I've realized are woven together. It's a hugely intricate story."

"The Rescue," which National Geographic released in theaters Friday, is the fullest, most detailed and most heart-pounding documentary portrait of just how a global coalition -- and a handful of cave-diving hobbyists -- swam 13 people to safety after they had been stuck inside the Tham Luang cave for 16 days. It was trying just to find the boys, a 2 1/2 hour dive from the mouth of the cave, and harder still to get them out. With the world watching and monsoon rains in the forecast, Stanton and other volunteering divers swam each out individually while they were sedated. For any normal person, the kind of diving Stanton does for fun is too panic-inducing to jump into conscious.

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"We love this story for the same reasons it captured the hearts and minds of the whole world. It's got all the right ingredients -- an impossible rescue against all odds," says Vasarhelyi. "And it's got these characters."

"The Rescue" is Vasarhelyi and Chin's follow-up to "Free Solo," their Oscar-winning documentary about rock climber Alex Honnold's rope-less assent of Yosemite's El Capitan. Their latest is likewise a tense and charming portrait of people with an extreme and rare obsession. But this time, instead of rappelling alongside their subjects (Chin is a world-class climber), they were assembling the film after-the-fact and navigating a much lower altitude.

"We wanted them to show us how they did it, down to the smallest detail. Those details matter to us," says Chin, who's married to Vasarhelyi, with two children. "In the climbing world, if someone's making a film about you and you do something totally outrageous and wrong and people recognize it, that's kind of heartbreaking and annoying."

To do that, the filmmakers went through the decision making process in lengthy on-camera interviews with Stanton and others, including John Volanthan and Dr. Richard Harris, an Australian diver and anesthetist who sedated the boys. The filmmakers also shot re-creations with the divers in Pinewood Studios. One thing Stanton had no interest in: Acting.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"All we said we'd do is we'd turn up with exact equipment we had in Thailand and do exactly what we did there," says Stanton. He had seen 2019's "The Cave," a 2019 dramatization of the rescue that starred diver Jim Warny as himself.

"It really doesn't come across very well in my opinion," says Stanton. "The only way we're going to come across as genuine is doing what we genuinely did."

The cave rescue was immediately followed by a rush for life rights. National Geographic landed those to the divers. Rights to the boys' stories, steered by the Thai government, ended up with Netflix. Next year, the streamer will release a miniseries. Howard's big-screen drama "Thirteen Lives" is also due out in 2022.

The competing interests made it, Vasarhelyi says, "a rights quagmire." She and Chin wanted to capture the full picture of the operation but there were limitations -- and not just because some, like the soccer team, couldn't appear on camera. They were piecing the film together during the pandemic, and it wasn't until this spring that Vasarhelyi was able to travel to Thailand, visit the cave and meet with other prominent figures in the ordeal, like the Thai Navy Seals. She secured the footage shot by the Seals in and around the cave, adding another vivid perspective of the rescue.

But the backbone of "The Rescue" is the British cave divers, whose very particular expertise led them to the cave. To Stanton, the film captures for the first time just how difficult and risky a task it was.

"It's not just the diving, per se. It's the whole thing," says Stanton. "And taking that massive responsibility. And trying to persuade a foreign government to do something that was, on paper, quite ludicrous."

To Vasarhely and Chin, "The Rescue" represents a disparate swath of humanity -- some 5,000 were involved in the operation -- coming together for one purpose. And how supreme dedication to one passion can lead to something greater.

"They're the people you might not think twice about or think they're oddballs," says Chin. "But in fact, they may have found the secret. And in this film, they use it for a very noble purpose."

Stanton, who received Britain's George Medal for gallantry, has gotten used to a spotlight following him since the rescue. But at the Telluride Film Festival, he experienced a more Hollywood brand of celebrity. The Hollywood Reporter called Stanton "Telluride's most eligible bachelor."

"I'm not even sure how she knew I was a bachelor," he says. "I'm used to people coming up and shaking my hand and saying, 'Well done.'"

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