|Director: Ron Howard
|Screenplay: William Nicholson (story by Don MacPherson & William Nicholson)
|Stars: Viggo Mortensen (Rick Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Harry Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson), Girati Sugiyama (Lek), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Coach), Pasakorn Hoyhon (Chai), Tanatat Srita (Arm)
|MPAA Rating: PG-13
|Year of Release: 2022
Ron Howard’s ripped-from-the-headlines drama Thirteen Lives recounts the genuinely incredible story of 12 adolescent Thai soccer players and their coach who got caught in a rapidly flooding cave and spent the next 18 days waiting for rescue that would probably never come. The immense and unrelenting water levels, the depth at which they were trapped, and the tight corners and narrow passages that had to be traversed all but assured their demise, which turned their ordeal into a white-knuckle media event that kept the world on edge. In other words, it was perfect fodder for a Hollywood movie.
Written by William Nicholson, a playwright-turned-screenwriter who has recently specialized in adapting true stories (Unbroken, Everest), Thirteen Lives focuses primarily on the rescue effort, which is initially headed by the Royal Thai Navy SEALs, but is eventually turned over to members of the British Cave Rescue Council: Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). Stanton and Volanthen possess a particular set of skills involving cave diving that makes them unique in the world and perfectly suited to executing a seemingly impossible rescue mission, even though their personalities are highly polarized. Where others failed they are able to succeed, but not without significant trial and error, not to mention encroaching doubt about the feasibility of their mission. While Volanthen remains largely optimistic, Stanton begins to doubt, which makes it all the more difficult to don helmets and air tanks and descend into the restricted darkness of the flooded cave (Mortensen and Farrell are both very good at conveying their characters conflicting perspectives, creating a dramatic microcosm of the push-and-pull of hope and despair).
But, as anyone who followed the headlines knows, against all odds the kids were saved by bringing them out one by one after having been anesthetized so they wouldn’t panic during the long, slow journey through murky waters and deadly-tight tunnels. The job of putting the kids under falls to Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anesthesiologist and cave diver who, like Stanton and Volanthen, possesses a unique confluence of skills that makes the impossible possible. If anything, Thirteen Lives is testament to the abilities and ingenuity and sheer gutsiness of the rescuers, who worked against all odds to ensure that the lives of the title were not extinguished in the dark, where they sat for so many days.
Scant attention is paid to the kids and their coach once they get trapped in the cave, but that makes sense because Thirteen Lives is at heart a procedural, a tense drama about people trying to figure out how to pull off the impossible using their unique grasp of knowledge held by only a small handful of people in the world. Of course, because this story is so recent and so well known, there is danger that the tension will be sapped by our knowledge of the outcome, but Howard manages to keep things tight and engaging, primarily by submerging us right along with the rescue team, engaging us viscerally in the cramped darkness. He also gives us just enough of the kids at the beginning of the film, as well as certain family members, to keep them from completely receding into the background. But, the film’s focus is mostly on the process; just as Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) founds its best moments when members of NASA were working together to piece together a solution to bring the astronauts home, Thirteen Lives has its grasp on us the tightest when it is dramatizing the specifics of how certain death was turned into triumph rescue.
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