Ron Howard bounces back from the disaster of Hillbilly Elegywith this tense, involving drama that re-enacts the 2018 rescue of a dozen youths and their coach from a flooded Thai cave. With the focus on some of those most involved in the effort to save the stranded thirteen before a monsoon would certainly drown them as well as the challenges the cave presented, Howard provides an entertaining drama that illuminates the event and acts as kind of a companion piece to Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s award-winning documentary, The Rescue.
Howard quickly sketches the start of the disaster. On June 23,2018, the boys, aged 11-16, members of the Wild Boars youth football team, and a 25-year-old assistant coach entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex, 6.2 miles long and full of tunnels and narrow passages. With monsoon season still a few weeks off, it should have been an uneventful adventure but the rains came, trapping them.
As the story spirals into a global news event, would-be rescuers spring into action. There are practical matters: No one knows where the group is within the labyrinth of tunnels. Water has to be diverted from the mountain to keep from further flooding the cavern. There are also political considerations: The region’s governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) notes that his stay in office has been extended – in the event lives are lost and there is a need to place blame. The film also capture the circus-like atmosphere that such a story engenders: news crews and reporters jostling one another for stories and space, that families in a fish bowl as they await the fates of their loved ones, the crowds of curious onlookers.
Though the trapped youths attracted would-be rescuers from around the world, including Elon Musk, whose idea of conducting an operation using a miniature submarine was deemed unworkable, Thirteen Lives settles on mainly two groups: Thai Navy SEALS, who are challenged by murky waters that made visibility near zero, and a group of cave divers, led by two Brits, a retired fireman, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), and an IT specialist who is the father of a young son, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). Three others join them, Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson), Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), and an Australian doctor, Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton). Stanton, the cynic, is not even sure rescue is possible – but like everyone else, he is not willing to surrender to the seeming inevitable.
What Howard does exceptionally well, aided by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and production designer Molly Hughes and her team, who designed the facsimile of the real cave, is show us the conditions facing the rescuers: the lack of visibility, the narrowness of some of the passages, and the way the cave system snakes off in different directions. On the screen, Howard marks off distances in meters, another indication of the challenge in getting any of those trapped out alive.
This is one of those historical dramas where unless you have lived your life under a rock or off the grid, you know how the story ends. The pleasure in the film is watching, step by step, how the tale reached its famous conclusion. Acting by the international catch is top-notch, double Oscar nominee William Nicholson’s (Shadlowlands, Gladiator) script finds the intensity in even tiny details, and what the film lacks in suspense from the foregone conclusion it makes up for in tension by its immersion in the divers’ experiences and decisions. Thirteen Livesis old-fashioned, grand entertainment, and that is Howard’s strength as a filmmaker. –Pam Grady