In summer 2018, when a youth soccer team was trapped for 18 days deep within a treacherous cave system, the world became transfixed as events unfolded in real time through news reports.
In a phone interview from Los Angeles, British cave diver Rick Stanton related critical moments from four years ago — after hours underwater within the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.
“As we swam where no one had searched before, we were expecting to find 13 drowned bodies,” Stanton told me. “We couldn’t see, and we might literally bump into lifeless children.”
If he sounds blunt, the 60-something former firefighter isn’t much for pleasantries. In director Ron Howard’s latest true-life drama “Thirteen Lives,” which premieres Friday worldwide on Prime Video, lead diver Stanton is portrayed by Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy). And, in a statement, the actor describes his real-life counterpart as “gruff.”
“Rick calls it the way he sees it [which] can be a bit shocking,” said Mortensen, who spent significant time getting to know Stanton prior to and during filming. “He says in the film, ‘That’s not going to work, they’re going to die if we do this.’ He’s not social in the way most people are.”
Millions have since seen some version of the story told in various documentaries, notably National Geographic’s “The Rescue,” which first aired last fall. Some have become amateur experts on the crisis news event, evidenced by a Wikipedia entry that runs over 7,500 words.
Can a Hollywood treatment of the Thai cave rescue — with Mortensen as Stanton, Colin Farrell as diving partner John Volanthen, and an ensemble cast of Thai actors — reveal something new?
Howard, known for based-on-true-story hits such as “Apollo 13” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” worked to bring forward previously unknown details and amplify the human drama. “Anytime you’re doing a story that’s based on real events, it’s vital that you have people who truly understand it,” said Howard in a statement. “It’s too much to assume that any researcher can get everything right.”
The director subsequently hired Stanton and another diver at the scene, Jason Mallinson, as on-set consultants for diving scenes. Even with a 147-minute runtime, “Thirteen Lives” speeds through early set-up scenes and then ratchets up the stakes.
Like the divers themselves, viewers experience a roller-coaster of emotions. “Imagine when we found them all alive in a dry chamber,” said Stanton. “We felt relief, but it was very short-lived. Our joy at them being alive was tempered by: Now what are we going to do?”
Perilous Situation, Risky Plan
Even while promoting a movie he consulted on, Stanton doesn’t stick with the PR script when asked about one of their first cave dives that plays out on-screen like an avalanche.
In the film, massive chunks of rock are seen falling on the British divers. “I’d say that’s not accurate,” Stanton told me. “We did encounter a flood pulse at one point, where there’s a wall of water coming towards you because of an increase in flow. But it wasn’t caused by a cave wall breaking apart.”
Yet, on the essential details and personality dynamics at play, he says the filmmakers got it right. Prior to arriving in Thailand, when first discussing the crisis over the phone with diving partner Volanthen, Stanton breaks the tension when he mutters: “I don’t even like kids.”
Asked about the line, he replied: “That’s true! What I say is I’ve structured my whole life to avoid children.” On-screen, as in real life, Volanthen is a family man whose social and emotional intelligence complements Stanton’s outside-the-box strategic intellect.
Later, once the trapped boys were found, it became a race against two ticking clocks — their oxygen in the cave chamber getting thinner by the hour, and monsoon season on the horizon.
Dozens of Thai Navy SEALs led by Captain Arnont Sureewong (Tui Thiraphat Sajakul in the film) were mobilized. One of them, Saman Kunan, age 38, died while attempting to shuttle supplies deep into the cave. The military halted any of their further dives past chamber three, yet their manpower later proved vital.
Meanwhile, the scruffy-looking middle-aged British divers sought to do more than sit on the sidelines. Similar to a first responder, Stanton’s capacity to have emotional distance sparked an “insane” idea: to sedate the boys and dive them out.
His friend, Australian anesthetist Richard “Harry” Harris (played by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton), initially rejects the risky and borderline unethical plan. Gradually he realizes it’s the only way and trains his fellow “amateur expert” cave divers on sedating a submerged child wearing a wetsuit.
“Harris called it the Stanton Inert Package Plan,” said Stanton. “Mentally, we did have to treat them as packages. However, the moment you pick up your ‘package,’ you realize it’s a living person. And that’s a different kettle of fish.”
While some critics prefer the documentary version, “Thirteen Lives” draws viewers into several plot threads at once. It underlines the stakes of more than 5,000 people from 17 countries working together — with the peril made more visceral through cinematic techniques.
Hundreds of locals worked in tandem with a water flow expert, who helped divert 100 million gallons of rainfall to keep the caves from flooding further. The provincial governor had to trust the divers’ technical expertise in agreeing to their plan. And the film also respectfully depicts the nation’s prevalent Buddhist religion, as distraught Thai parents are seen in fervent prayer.
For the lead diver, who often states that panic is death in caving — particularly white-water caving with no visibility — he says don’t overlook smaller heroes. “The boys were hugely responsible for their own survival by being calm in this situation,” said Stanton. “As tough hill tribe children from that northern part of Thailand, they held it together for nine days in the dark with no food.”
Building up breathless pressure reminiscent of 2013 sci-fi drama “Gravity,” this drama packs an emotional wallop by sticking to the facts. As vulnerable lives are nearly lost at critical moments, “Thirteen Lives” will rip your heart out, and it might make you hug your kids a bit tighter.
“This is a story about people being selfless and pulling together,” said actor Mortensen in a statement. “Everybody [involved] wanted to get it right.”
Rated PG-13 for strong language and unsettling images, “Thirteen Lives” is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.