I still remember when I first heard the news back in 2018 that captivated the world. It was during the Summer time when 12 soccer players, aged 11-16, and their assistant soccer coach decided to enter the Tham Luang cave after their football practice. I’d think it was a nice way to cool off after a hot day, but Thailand’s monsoon season apparently arrived early as heavy rainfall soon trapped the boys in the cavern of the cave system.
There have been numerous documentaries and films made about this ordeal, but I actually had not seen a single one until this one directed by Ron Howard. The esteemed director has directed a bunch of movies based on true stories (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) as well as documentaries on The Beatles and Luciano Pavarotti. In Thirteen Lives, Howard combines his skills in mixing narrative and journalistic-style filmmaking as he focuses on the rescue mission by people from all over the world to bring the thirteen lives out of the cave safely.
The film opens during broad daylight showing the boys and their coach during football practice and after getting some snacks, they bike to the cave for a quick visit. As massive downpours continue through the night, the families started to worry about why their kids haven’t come home yet. It’s a perfect setup as we are introduced to the human faces the story hinges on, yet the film didn’t waste much time to get right on the action. Soon the governor and the Thai rescue team arrive at the cave and begin the rescue effort… little did they know that the harrowing effort would take as long as 18 days, and every minute counts.
I appreciate the way the film displays the time tracking, map of the location and how long and winding the cave system is as soon as the rescue effort begins. Yet all that info doesn’t bog down the human story and Howard’s talent of humanizing the remarkable is in full display here. On the other side of the world in Britain, we see IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) conversing with his friend, former firefighter Richard ‘Rick’ Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) that their cave diving hobby just might be what the rescuers need.
As they arrive at the cave, they almost weren’t allowed to dive even though they were volunteers flown in specifically for the mission. Their 3-decade of experience made them more skilled at cave diving than the much-younger Thai SEALS team. The script by William Nicholson is as efficient as it gets, offering a frill-free, no-nonsense chronicle of the ordeal while giving us a glimpse of Thai politics and how several international groups from various walks of life navigate the complex rescue operation day in and day out.
The acting of all the actors are phenomenal all around. Apparently, Mortensen insisted on doing all his own diving on set, which inspired the rest of the cast to get on board as well. He and Farrell got the most screen time as they were on the mission from the start. As days turn to weeks and things are getting desperate, John and Rick decided to bring in more cave diving friends: Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton), Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson). It’s Harry’s occupation as an Australian anesthetist that ends up playing a crucial role in bringing all of the thirteen people out safely. I’m also really impressed by the acting of the non-actors playing the boys, while Thai pop-star Teeradon Supapunpinyo delivered such an emotional performance as the caring coach who cared for and protected each of the boys.
This is a good example of how filmmakers exercise the ‘filmmaking with empathy’ mantra as they honor, respect, and appreciate the undeniable importance of the Thai community. There has been valid criticism that Hollywood often whitewashed stories depicting non-western cultures, so I applaud Howard + co. that this film doesn’t suffer from the white-savior complex. One thing I didn’t realize during the time I read the news was that there was a Thai water engineer who put together a team of volunteers to get the water diverted from falling into the cave which already caused massive flooding.
There are also the kind-hearted farmers who sacrificed their crops when all that water flooded the fields. It’s good that these kinds of extraordinary benevolence and heroism didn’t get lost amidst the shuffle. I also appreciate that the filmmakers didn’t portray the rescuers as ‘super humans’ despite the fact that what they did were heroic… there are moments where some of the divers experience a mental breakdown (played remarkably by Tom Bateman) or moments where things didn’t go as planned.
The set by Molly Hughes is meticulously designed to look like the real deal which adds a sense of authenticity both above ground and during the underwater scenes. It feels a bit claustrophobic watching the divers maneuver the narrow passages of the cave… it’s already hard enough for one slim person, plus they have to carry those huge tanks so they have enough oxygen after 3-4 hours underwater. There’s that sense of isolation and desperation every time they dive in, which shows just how difficult cave diving must be even if they didn’t have to rescue anyone. Despite knowing the outcome, the film is still filled with genuine tension and suspense, which in and of itself is an impressive feat.
As the tagline says: 5000 people. 17 countries. 1 miracle that united the world. It truly was miraculous that all the people trapped in the cave survived with only one casualty. The film is dedicated to Saman Gunan, one of the Thai divers who’s a former SEAL who lost his life during the rescue. Even though you think you know all the details about this rescue mission, it’s still incredible to watch it being depicted on screen.
Despite the nearly 2.5-hour running time, the film never chugs along and it’s never boring. Howard is able to keep the momentum going after that one deeply memorable moment when the two divers first discover that all 13 people are still alive after 10 days inside the cave. The look of shock on their faces is palpable, but there’s also that sense of panic in Rick’s eyes as it’s one thing to see the boys still alive, but it’s quite another to actually bring them out safely out of the cave. It takes an emphatic heart to give this incredible story justice and Ron Howard definitely has that and then some. The result is an impressive, edge-of-your-seat adventure survival drama that’s as thrilling as it is emotionally resonant. Bravura filmmaking at its finest, I’d even go so far as the film being Oscar-worthy.
Have you seen Thirteen Lives? What did you think?