Thirteen Lives works sufficiently as a nail-biter rescue movie that mostly sticks to what it knows.
Published on August 25, 2022
Rating 3.5 /5
Ron Howard has directed a number of films but I suppose the best way I’d describe his directing would be a focus on the tactile and the real. He’s very detailed in how he often takes aim at trying to capture so much of reality in his documentaries. This aspect remains true for Thirteen Lives, a dramatization of the 2018 cave-in in Thailand that stranded thirteen boys underground. The event was a fascinating and unorthodox rescue procedure that was bound to get a movie made at some point. At least Ron Howard has some focus and heart for this type of material to make it work a little better than one might expect.
Howard’s direction tries to piece together the events bit by bit. Twelve boys and their assistant coach for their football team decide to have some fun and explore the Tham Luang cave. The rain, however, floods the caves and the families grow worried. A rescue operation is underway as the Royal Thai Navy SEALs are called onto the scene. They struggle to find the boys and that’s when outside help is called. One of the local Brits in Thailand, Vernon Unsworth, notices how intricate this cave structure is and recommends the rescue team get some experienced British divers.
It’s only during this moment that the film introduces the big headliners for this type of picture. Viggo Mortensen plays Richard Stanton, a cave diver who is a bit of a loner and prefers to be blunt when breaking bad news. Colin Farrell plays John Volanthen, a cave diver with a young son which makes him more sympathetic to the plight. The two are experienced enough to make it through the long passages of the cave’s flooded areas to eventually find the missing football team. Getting the boys out of that cave, however, presents an entirely new challenge. Thus begins a delicate and dangerous operation to drug the team and haul them out of the cave-like packages.
The tension builds nicely, even for a film that runs 2.5 hours long. You can feel the wear and tear on the weathered faces of Mortensen and Farrell as the play men show deep concern for whether or not they call to pull off this operation. Howard’s typography and graphics always keep the viewer properly informed about the progress of the operation and how much of the cave has been explored. There’s such a focused approach that it’s remarkable Howard takes some time to focus on the local farmers who did their part in diverting water. A good ⅔ of the film is also heavily in Thai, making the narrative all the more believable and less like an American-made version of this unique underground rescue.
There’s not exactly a whole lot of room for character building in a tale such as this. Even when there are a handful of down moments, we mostly learn the bare bones of people like Richard and John. They mostly speak about their mission or what they’re going to eat, keeping their personal matters more at home where they feel they belong. There’s a certain dose of realism to these portrayals, where one can’t help but feel that a lesser director would have John bluster about seeing his own kid in such a situation. Howard has enough faith in the rescue itself to carry the film and it mostly does, where actors like Mortensen and Farrell stick strictly with the role of the men in this operation rather than the men as developing characters.
Thirteen Lives works sufficiently as a nail-biter rescue movie that mostly sticks to what it knows. So what do we know about the Tham Luang cave rescue? Well, all thirteen lives trapped were saved, and one Royal Thai Navy SEAL diver died during the operation. Navy Seal, Beirut Pakbara, would also die later from a blood infection incurred during the operation. The sacrifices were noble as they led to all the boys surviving and pulling off one of the most daring rescue operations. It’s enough to make your heart warm for humanity just a little bit more and appreciate that Howard didn’t cheapen this real-life event with too much theatrics.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.