In ‘The Rescue’, a perilous submarine mission in brief

This image released by National Geographic shows a scene from the documentary film “The Rescue”, chronicling the 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys and their football coach trapped deep in a flooded cave. (National Geographic via AP)

NEW YORK | Richard Stanton, the elite British cave diver who helped lead the mission to rescue 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018, isn’t much for the movies. Stanton will dive into the most murky waters without hesitation, but he rarely sets foot in a dark movie theater.

“I have no interest in movies,” Stanton says. “I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies.”

Stanton, 60, has a soft spot for “Apollo 13” – a good thing, since its director, Ron Howard, is making a film about Stanton and the other divers who made the Tham Luang cave rescue possible. (Viggo Mortensen plays Stanton.)

But Stanton, one of Britain’s greatest cave divers, has actually been to the movies lately. A lot. Days after its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last month, Stanton had seen “The Rescue,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s captivating non-fiction five times about the underwater ordeal. At first, he says, it was “a little weird.”

“We were just like, ‘Well, that’s it, then,'” Stanton, a retired firefighter inclined to pragmaticism. “But the more I saw it, the more I realized that it was intricate and that the layers were woven together. It is an extremely complex story.

“The Rescue,” which National Geographic opens in theaters Friday, is the most comprehensive, detailed, and thrilling documentary portrait of how a global coalition – and a handful of cave diving enthusiasts – swam 13 people safe after being stuck in Tham Luang cave for 16 days. He was just trying to find the boys, a 2.5 hour dive from the mouth of the cave, and even harder to get them out. As the world watched and the monsoon rains were announced, Stanton and other volunteer divers swam individually while they were sedated. For any normal person, the kind of diving Stanton does for fun is too maddening to jump into consciousness.

“We love this story for the same reasons it has captured hearts and minds around the world. It contains all the right ingredients – an impossible rescue against thick and thin, ”says Vasarhelyi. “And he has these characters.”

“The Rescue” is Vasarhelyi and Chin’s sequel to “Free Solo,” their Oscar-winning documentary about climber Alex Honnold’s cordless assent to El Capitan of Yosemite. Their latest is also a tense and charming portrayal 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 putting the film together after the fact and sailing at a much lower altitude.

“We wanted them to show us how they did it, down to the smallest detail. These details matter to us, ”says Chin, who is married to Vasarhelyi and has two children. “In the climbing world, if someone makes a movie about you and you do something totally outrageous and wrong and people recognize it, it’s kinda heartbreaking and boring.”

To accomplish this, 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 put the boys to sleep. The filmmakers also shot recreations with the divers at Pinewood Studios. One thing Stanton didn’t care about: acting.

“All we said we would do is come with the exact equipment we had in Thailand and do exactly what we did there,” says Stanton. He had seen “The Cave” from 2019 a 2019 dramatization of the rescue that starred diver Jim Warny as himself.

“In my opinion, it’s really not going very well,” Stanton says. “The only way for us to appear genuine is to do what we really did. “

The cave rescue was immediately followed by a scramble for the rights to life. National Geographic entrusted them to divers. The rights to the boys’ stories, run by the Thai government, ended up with Netflix. Next year, the streamer will be releasing a miniseries. Howard’s big-screen drama “Thirteen Lives” is also slated for release in 2022.

Competing interests have made it, says Vasarhelyi, “a quagmire of rights.” She and Chin wanted to capture the full picture of the operation, but there were limits – and not just because some, like the soccer team, couldn’t appear on camera. They were re-enacting the film during the pandemic, and it wasn’t until the spring that Vasarhelyi was able to travel to Thailand, visit the cave, and meet other personalities from the ordeal, such as 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” are the British cave divers, whose very special expertise has brought them to the cave. For Stanton, the film captures for the first time how difficult and risky this was.

“It’s not just the diving itself. That’s all, Stanton said. “And take this huge responsibility. And trying to persuade a foreign government to do something that was, on paper, pretty ridiculous. “

For Vasarhely and Chin, “The Rescue” represents a disparate fringe of humanity – some 5,000 were involved in the operation – coming together for a single purpose. And how the supreme dedication to a passion can lead to something greater.

“These are people you maybe don’t think twice about or think are weird,” Chin explains. “But in fact, they might have found the secret. And in this movie, they use it for a very noble purpose.

Stanton, who received the British George Medal for Bravery, has grown accustomed to being followed by the spotlight since the rescue. But at the Telluride Film Festival, he saw a more Hollywood celebrity mark. The Hollywood Reporter called Stanton “Telluride’s most eligible bachelor.”

“I don’t even know how she found out I was single,” he says. “I’m used to people coming to shake my hand and say, ‘Well done’. “

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