In 1995, director Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 opened in theaters and showed his audiences that he is a filmmaker with a gift for recreating historical events, particularly those that are crisis situations. Though Howard has presented more movies based on real people and events (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Frost/Nixon, Rush, In the Heart of the Sea), nothing has quite equalled his exceptional storytelling that Apollo 13 beautifully displays. A few movies have come close and his latest release, Thirteen Lives, is one of them. Based on the true story of the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand, Howard skillfully details the remarkable efforts and tension-filled rescuing that brought the youth of a Thai soccer team home safely.
Now, hopefully no one will cry, “Spoiler Alert!” after that last sentence, but most of these factual events are pretty well-known throughout most of the world. In fact an outstanding documentary titled, The Rescue, tells this story in great detail. Still, the fact that Ron Howard can take what is a fairly well-known story, and, with his cast and crew, do an exceptional job in making it a riveting experience once again proves what a talented filmmaker he is and also that he is working with mostly masters of their respective crafts.
For the uninitiated, in 2018, a group of twelve boy soccer players and their 25 year-old coach decide to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex beneath the Doi Nang Non, a mountain range between Thailand and Myanmar. They eventually become trapped within the caves of the mountains after a lengthy torrential downpour floods the caverns. Unable to swim the lengthy stretches of the flooded caverns without scuba gear, the boys and their coach are forced to remain there until they can get rescued.
After being missing for some time, the local law enforcement, along with Thailand’s Navy Seals, and various kinds of crews begin making attempts to navigate through the caves to reach the boys. As the news spreads globally, more and more volunteers arrive to offer their help. This includes a group of experienced and skilled rescue divers, lead by Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). This diving team from Britain eventually devises a very challenging and risky plan to get the soccer team out of the cave.
Written by Don MacPherson and William Nicholson, Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives is a great reenactment of these incredible events and is mostly presented in ways that do not, at all feel very Hollywood. With Apollo 13, Howard and his crew take a more Hollywood, theatrical approach to that story, and that works beautifully. However, in the case of this rescue story, I feel that recreating these moments require a more subtle and organic touch. And that style of filmmaking makes the experience pretty damn close to that of watching a documentary.
From the cinematography and editing to the effects and performances by the outstanding cast, everything in this movie comes across as real and natural. This is a solid exercise of cinema verite. The marriage of the solid script and the talents of the castmembers make the real magic seem tangible. I already mentioned Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, who are both extraordinary in their respective roles. The movie also feature great turns by Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanaros, Paul Gleeson, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, and so many other extraordinary, mostly unknown talents who perform so beautifully.
My main complaint about the movie is that it is a tad longer than it really needs to be. Some of the beats and moments feel somewhat redundant, but aside from those parts, Howard and James D. Wilcox work their magic to make this harrowing rescue as tense and riveting as it needs to be. Thirteen Lives already had a limited theatrical release, and if one has the opportunity to see it that way, I highly recommend it. For those who don’t have a theater near them that is screening the movie, this film is also available for streaming on Amazon Prime. It is certainly a Ron Howard movie that deserves some love and success.