I don’t envy anyone following the breath-taking thrill ride of The Rescue while chronicling the 2018 Thai cave rescue. However, Thirteen Lives makes an admirable stab in dramatizing the rescue. Directed by Ron Howard, Thirteen Lives is likelier to thrill audiences who haven’t seen The Rescue. For audiences who have experienced Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi tautly crafted documentary, Thirteen Lives doesn’t really add to the story, aside from some sexed-up casting choices. It’s sort of a classic anything drama can do, documentary does better situation. As a standalone work, the film is solid no-frills based-on-a-true-story drama from Hollywood’s top metteur en scène. If The Rescue was a daring-do by documentary adventurers, Thirteen Lives is dad cinema in top form.
The film, which moves quickly despite its 147-minute running time, observes as the thirteen boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach embark on an ill-fated cave adventure en route to a birthday party. However, when they fail to appear at the party and monsoon season comes early, the boys’ parents fear the worst. Howard assembles all the players as the rescue mission becomes a source of both national pride and national anxiety. The story of these boys, trapped in a cave that will slowly swallow them up, becomes an international sensation. The whole world is watching, but even the top divers from Thailand’s navy can’t navigate the murky waters and serpentine channels of Tham Luang Nang Non cave.
To the Rescue!
Rescuing these boys is no ordinary matter, so the governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) takes the advice to secure seasoned cave divers. British divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) reluctantly accept the challenge. They know the difficulty of navigating such a dive, but also the patience, caution, and calculation involved with risking the plunge. However, Stanton is especially wary because there’s a good chance those boys won’t be coming out alive.
Thirteen Lives captures the scale of the rescue mission quite remarkably. Howard takes full advantage of his cavernous location. The film burrows into the belly of the beast, exploring all its perilous nooks and crannies. In addition to scale, Thirteen Lives has an eye for small details, like the dangerous cuts and scrapes a diver gets while navigating the dark water and stalagmites. (The credits note that blood poisoning later took the life of one of the other divers.) It’s all gripping, white-knuckle stuff even if one already knows the outcome.
The film finds worthy heroes in Farrell and Mortensen, but it gets an extra punch from the appearance of Joel Edgerton as diver Harry Harris. John and Rick summon Harry when they realize that the only way to bring the boys out is an Argo-ish gamble: the best bad idea. They suggest sedating the boys and ferrying them out individually. The rescuers see how even experienced divers fail to navigate the extremities of the cave with one Thai SEAL drowning amid the expedition. These boys, like the lesser-experienced adult divers, while inevitably use up their oxygen and panic. Harry, a diver and anaesthesiologist, becomes a key player in the race against time.
Where Are the Boys?
There are some stories that invariably make for thrilling cinema and this is one of them. Howard knows how to harness the elements, pull at heartstrings, and leave a never breathless. While Thirteen Lives might not do for water what Backdraft did for fire, Howard crafts a claustrophobic thriller that pays tribute to ordinary heroes.
While the rescuers yield compelling material, there’s another part to the story. Thirteen Lives, however, features the same issue as The Rescue: how does a film tell a story without many key subjects? The challenge both films face is that the folks behind Netflix’s upcoming series, Thai Cave Rescue, own the boys’ life rights. On one hand, the whole “Thai Cave Cinematic Universe” thing lends an awkwardness to all these films that race to tell the story, especially at a time when white saviour narratives are out of fashion. It’s no slight to the British divers, but both films are notable for the boys’ absence from the roster of meaningful characters. The Rescue could get around this dynamic more easily since, as a documentary, images of the boys were limited to what the rescuers filmed as proof of life.
Where The Rescue featured perspectives from Thai divers and family members, though, Thirteen Lives finds a surrogate for the boys. The screenplay by William Nicholson (Gladiator) adds a thread with the mother of Chai, the youngest boy on the team. Played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, she becomes the window into the family’s harrowing ordeal. Her heartfelt performance offsets the film’s limited access the boys. We’re given a perspective not from the dark depths of the cave, but from the families anxiously left in the dark as the rescue mission forges ahead.
Thirteen Lives opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on July 29.
It streams on Prime Video beginning August 5.