Thirteen Lives: Ron Howard's Thai cave rescue movie

You’re getting pushback because it sounds like you’re not aware of the circumstances. The movie takes pains to make sure viewers understand the stakes by showing what happens when someone panics during an underwater rescue.

I’ve actually seen this firsthand and it puts everyone in danger. When it happened to me, we were only in about thirty feet of water. I was able to get the woman to the surface only by seizing her buoyancy vest with both hands, pulling our masks very close to each other so she could only see me instead of the open ocean, and trying to reassure her with however much of my face she could see. And she even had some training! It was her checkout dive after several classes in a swimming pool, so she knew how the equipment worked and she had of course been taught about the dangers of rapid ascent. But she wanted nothing more than to get back to the surface as fast as she could and I had to hold her tight the whole time as we slowly ascended. It was almost like riding a tiger. I could feel her body struggling to just go up, up, up, which could have seriously injured her. But she was panicked, and her body had taken over.

Now imagine this in a completely dark, tightly confined, and jagged underwater space, with a child who has no concept of how scuba gear works. It would have been madness to take those children through while they were conscious, and given the circumstances, it was incredibly risky dragging them underwater for upwards of seven hours and having to regularly re-administer the anesthetic as they went, regardless of whether it was ketamine or anything else. The actual medication was hardly the issue!

So suffice it to say the situation with the Thai rescue was well within the boundaries of no anesthetic being completely safe. And I didn’t even need to use quote marks! :)

One of my favorite touches in the movie was how they would stick empty water boys in the binding around the boys’ ankles to keep their bare feet from catching on the cave floor. The overall rescue was that level of improvisation and practicality, multiplied by the thousands of people who pitched in to help. It’s as if those boys were kept alive and rescued by the equivalent of a thousand tiny touches of inspiration instead of any one grand scheme.

At least, that was my takeaway from what I feel the movie was saying.

The documentary made it clear that seasoned professionals and even the Thai SEALs were prone to panic in these cave conditions. Now you want to bring some kids through there?

— Alan

I have done a handful of wreck dives, and even going in large holes into a ship is a bit unnerving,and I’m pretty comfortable in the water. I can’t even comprehend how terrifying that dive is to even a licensed scuba diver much less a novice.

Does anybody know when the secret got out that they were putting the kids under before they swam out? It was news to me watching film that’s how they did it.

That’s a good question. I dimly recall knowing that’s how they got the kids out back when it happened, but I’d long since forgotten by the time it’s revealed in the movie. And I don’t recall whether it was known before or after the rescue. Surely it must have been public knowledge by the time the rescues were underway?

This is what bugged me. There’s one point in the movie when Joel Edgerton, playing the anesthetist/cave diver who put the kids down, starts to rattle off reasons it can’t be done. But then the movie proceeds without telling us anything about how they’re going to solve those issues! I would have liked to know more about the specific hazards and how (if?) they addressed them, because that seemed kind of important. When the most knowledgeable character in the movie says “we can’t do it because of problems A, B, and C”, shouldn’t the movie tell us how they got around problems A, B, and C?

I mean, it’s got a two and a half hour running time. Why not go for three hours and make sure the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed? :)

No during the rescue we were told that each kid had two rescue divers with them. In the movie they cleared out the media and family so the parents wouldn’t know they were being put under. I remember thinking it was extraordinary that the boys didn’t panic during the operation. But I had no idea what cave diving really meant, since my spelunking has been limited to big caves, with guides and footpaths, where the tight area requires you to duck your head. Not passages made for Dwarves or Hobbits. The movie does a good job, of educating the viewer of the challenges, but a scene or two of them discussing/arguing the options would have been better.

It’s been a while since I watched the documentary, but I was under the impression that out of A, B and C they only figured out C somewhat at best and went ahead anyway since there was no better alternative, and due to the beginning of the monsoon season they didn’t have time left to find better solutions.

I think they did address this in the documentary. They used a cocktail of drugs, including Ketamine to knock them out, Xanax to lower their anxiety, dopamine to steady their heart rate, and some other drug to prevent vomiting/coughing. And the Thai government legally indemnified Dr. Harris so that he didn’t have to worry about ending up in a Thai prison if one or more of the kids didn’t make it. The anesthetic had to be re-administered by other divers during the transit, because it didn’t last long enough, and they were trained by Dr. Harris to do this. They used positive pressure masks to prevent water from getting in and as many other on-the-fly risk mitigations as they could think of. It was sketchy start-to-finish, but they tried to mitigate as many problems as they could and it was really their only option. And it worked.

Right, but the 7+ hour dives were done over a couple of days, and after the first round of kids came out and were hurried away to the hospital, surely someone let slip that they’d been anesthetized for the extraction? I’m just speculating, but it can’t have been easy to keep the process a secret for the duration of the rescue.

But ultimately, I’m in the same boat as you. I don’t recall whether we knew about the method while the rescue was still underway, or whether there was just a huge sigh of relief as they announced what they’d done only after they knew all the kids had survived.

That’s how it played out in the movie, as well. I guess I wanted to hear the conversations about A and B, and especially why A or B didn’t kill any of the kids. Because if they’re going to bring up the dangers, don’t just leave them lying there for us to trip over! :)

Watched this last night when I couldn’t sleep. (Had me so on edge that I still didn’t fall asleep for another hour after it was over.) I would have loved to see even more of the logistics and hashing out options, but overall it was really well done and particularly nice to see a Ron Howard film without a lot of his latter-day sentimentality. The comparison with Apollo 13 (maybe my favorite movie) is obvious, but apt.

One smart choice was showing the kids going into the cave and then not showing you what they were going through until they were discovered. Partly I think it probably avoided a lot of unpleasant child peril, but it also put you in the position of the parents and community members wondering when they would be found and in what state (although obviously most of us know they will be found). Also, while the coach didn’t get a lot of screen time, I thought they elucidated his character very well with the few understated moments he did have. I can’t help but think about how awful things would have been without someone like him there teaching the kids meditation, etc.

Excellent observation! This was an early part of the movie when I realized I “trusted” the script and wanted to keep watching. It would have been so easy to include scenes of panicked children running from flooding caves as a way of ratcheting up the tension, but I’m so glad that wasn’t in there.

And it just makes it all the more heartbreaking when they find the kids and it’s left to your imagination what they’ve been through in the past week plus.

It was a great role, and the young man playing it did a fantastic job, didn’t he? The thing that struck me is how terrible he would have felt if there had been any deaths among the other children. The guy was obviously devastated by the situation, and I don’t doubt Saman Gunan’s death is a terrible burden on him, but imagine how tragically broken the poor guy would have been if all of those kids hadn’t been saved.

From some reading I did the other day, it seems it was known that they used some degree of sedation at the time or maybe soon after. However, it wasn’t until April 2019 that the doctors published research with follow-up on the methods and described the exact medications used that the public knew that the kids and the coach were unconscious during the rescue.

The research paper is very detailed about exactly how they accomplished it and the movie seems pretty accurate to that account as movies go. The overall process was more involved than shown on-screen, but it would have been difficult to film the amount of divers and other personnel they used in there.

Thanks so much for looking this up, @Romalar! So that explains why it was such a successful reveal in the movie. At the time of the rescue, we knew the basics (“the kids were sedated”), but not the extent.

Ah, right. I did assume some streamlining of the process to keep the movie moving, but I have no sense for the difference between what happened and what was shown, which looked like about four Thai Navy divers left with the boys while Joel Edgerton’s character and a handful of syringes were the extent of the medical process. You’re saying there were considerably more rescue personnel than we saw in the movie? I’m guessing at times the caves were cramped not just by virtue of being close quarters, but for all the people who must have been moving through them.

I don’t think they could have had more than a few extra Thai SEALs with the kids as there wasn’t a lot of room on the mound to begin with, but there were subchambers and lots of other places where they had additional support along the way–but getting to them was the main issue.

— Alan

I watched the documentary The Rescue on Disney+ a couple nights ago after seeing Thirteen Lives. It’s worth seeing on it own, since you get to hear the divers in their own words and get some perspective on what was tweaked for the dramatization.

Some things I took away:

  • There were more than a dozen divers (I forget exactly how many) involved in the final rescue, including US Navy Seals and divers from China.
  • There were spots along the way where they had to carry the kids from one flooded passage, over ground, to the next.
  • There were over a hundred people like a bucket brigade to carry the kids from their exit from the water to the cave entrance. (13L showed a kind of zip line, which I assume was used, but the doc implied they were handed off from one individual to the next.)
  • The drug cocktail was Xanax for anxiety, atropine to reduce salivation and prevent choking, and ketamine for sedation.
  • In a crazy coincidence, the diver played by Viggo Mortensen had met a Thai woman in England and taken her on some of his outdoor excursions. She returned to her home in the very region where the boys were lost literally days before it happened. They’re now life partners (apparently at a royal medal ceremony, Prince William told him to marry her, but at least at the time of the doc they were not married).
  • At the start and at the end of the doc there was some discussion of the sort of person who becomes a recreational cave diver. It really takes profound emotional control, and I think the doc implied a lot of these guys are on the spectrum or at least have an unusual emotional make-up. But without people wired that way, the rescue wouldn’t have happened.
  • I was mystified about how they got some of the footage for the doc. Turns out they talked the Thai SEALs into giving them dozens of hours of footage they shot, they used some news footage, and then they had the actual divers do reenactments at a cave set at Pinewood studios in the UK. They also have some digital visualizations.

There were 18 rescue divers who transported kids out to Chamber 3. And over 100 divers who participated in the rescue delivering supplies, dredging, setting up communication lines and caches, etc. Then hundreds of people who passed the kids along a daisy chain for the half kilometer or so from Chamber 3 to the entrance.

Is there a consensus on whether I should watch the movie first, or the documentary?

I don’t feel strongly, but I think watching the movie first to experience the drama of the situation and then filling in the details with the doc was a good approach for me.

Were they US Navy SEALs? The impression I got was that there were Thai SEALs, and the US military advisors were Air Force Pararescue jumpers.

— Alan

I guess you’re right. Wikipedia says this about US military involvement:

On 28 June, the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) deployed 36 personnel from Okinawa, including airmen from 353rd Special Operations Group and the 31st Rescue Squadron. According to, they joined seven other personnel, including a member of Joint US Military Advisory Group Thailand.