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Thirteen Lives: Howard delivers handsome cave rescue film

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Aug. 05, 2022 - 9:56 AM

Thirteen Lives: Howard delivers handsome cave rescue film

“Thirteen Lives” is a handsome production with solid performances in an inspirational story.


Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

Film Details:

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, and Paul Gleeson

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours 27 minutes

Available on Prime Video (Amazon)

The true story of the Tham Luang cave rescue would seem perfect for cinematic narrative treatment. And it makes sense that Oscar-winning director Ron Howard would helm such a picture.

While Howard’s efforts are laudable, and his “Thirteen Lives” is an engaging, even compelling film, viewers familiar with the amazing story might find it a tedious, anti-climactic affair.

The events in Thailand in the summer of 2018 captured the world’s imagination. Television crews planet-wide flocked to the rainy location to cover the story. And we watched with bated breath as reports trickled in concerning the whereabouts of the 12 trapped soccer players aged eleven to sixteen and their coach.

Our collective hearts leaped with joy when they were found safe but deep in the flooded cave. But hopes began to fade as the reality sunk in. The cave was filling with water, oxygen levels were declining, and a rescue plan seemed all but impossible to accomplish.

The heroic efforts that followed were the thing of myth. If a Hollywood screenwriter had dreamed it up, the screenplay might have been dismissed as total fantasy. But we watched it all play out via the 24-hour news cycle. It happened for real, and the players and their coach were saved.

End of story.

The process of pulling off the remarkable, life-saving feat has already been chronicled in the terrific documentary “The Rescue,” released by National Geographic last year. “Thirteen Lives” might come off as a retread if you’ve already seen “The Rescue.” What worked so well with that documentary (from the “Free Solo” Oscar-winning directing duo Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin) was the inventive use of the massive amount of moment-by-moment footage taken both from inside and outside the cave.

The non-fiction format informed viewers about the rescue's mechanics and politics. British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton assembled a team to do the impossible when the government’s best Navy SEALs couldn’t dive the cave and find the boys.

Stanton and Volanthen are two characters that could have stepped out of a comic book or a Hollywood action picture. They were the unassuming everyman types that did the right thing, even if it meant they might perish in the process.

To play these two humble heroes, Howard brings in the big guns, Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell. And thankfully, the “Thirteen Lives” script from William Nicholson and a story by Don MacPherson doesn’t turn them into action superheroes. But, of course, that is precisely what they are in real life.

“Thirteen Lives” does an excellent job retraces the stages in retrieving the trapped souls from what was sure to be a watery grave. We meticulously see the steps followed. But because we know how it all ends, the tension is somewhat lacking. And this is where I wondered if the narrative's focus was misplaced.

Sure, the film's hook is the thrilling underwater rescue, but that story is so well known that any director would run into trouble, making it seem fresh and gripping. But by taking a risk and telling the story from another perspective, we might have engaged with the plight in a way that set this film apart from the documentary.

And Howard’s film does give us other angles associated with the community-wide effort. We see the pumps in action that were put in place in an almost fruitless attempt to pull water from the cave while monsoon rains poured. And we learn about the farmers’ sacrifice to block holes in the mountain, diverting water from the cave and onto their crops ruining yields.

But by otherwise retelling and dramatizing the events we saw on our television sets and later in “The Rescue,” Howard and his team play it safe. After all, any producer sinking big money into this docudrama had to ask themself, “how can I mess up THIS story?”

And Howard certainly doesn’t mess it up, but there’s little new information about the event shown. “Thirteen Lives” is a handsome production with solid performances in an inspirational story. And there’s nothing wrong with a movie celebrating human nature's heroic side.

But we learn little about what motivated Stanton and Volanthen to become cave divers. Howard adopts a detached naturalistic approach akin to a cinema verite documentary. Instead of a thrilling piece of narrative storytelling, this grounded filmmaking approach relegates “Thirteen Lives” to a good companion piece to Nat Geo’s “The Rescue.”

NOTE: In a surprising coincidence, another narrative telling of this story is being released today. That movie, “Cave Rescue,” appears very similar to “Thirteen Lives.” Even the trailers look almost identical.