There’s a fine line that every fact-based film has to walk. For example, it has to decide whether the viewer is supposed to know the real story behind it, or only knows the highlights. Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard’s new film based on the (fairly new) Thai cave rescue operation, is brazenly acting like you know nothing. And that is its competitive advantage.
The incident has been widely covered in the media – two films have already been made about it – and you can imagine that you know the broad outlines of the story, if not every tiny detail. In 2018, 12 boys and their soccer coach went into a cave but were trapped inside after heavy rains flooded the labyrinthine underground system. The rescue operation, carried out by Thai authorities in conjunction with several independent international divers, made global headlines and lasted over two weeks.
Howard’s film – arguably one of his best – not only offers a gripping, in-depth account of the mission, but also presents genuinely surprising new details that, on one occasion in particular, were deliberately kept under wraps for ethical reasons. That’s not entirely true – the great documentary The Rescue covered most of the bases – but it gives Thirteen Lives an extra layer of sincerity that’s very important in human dramas like this.
The film shows Howard going back to his roots in a way. Think of it as a cross between Apollo 13 and In the Heart of the Sea – both stories about human survival against all odds. Perhaps it’s a shift in audience sensibilities, or an example of Howard’s own evolution as a director, but Thirteen Lives is the antithesis of rousing Hollywood survival epics. On the one hand, Benjamin Wallfisch’s music is so subdued that it can no longer be distinguished from the excellent sound design. It rushes and jingles in sync with the sound of bubbling water and metal on rocks. Forget the emotional manipulation of the audience, they want to scare us.
This is some real white-knuckle stuff, although most people would probably know how the story ends. Working for the first time with acclaimed Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria), Howard’s film is simultaneously expansive – the exterior sequences feel almost lush – and claustrophobic when the rescue operation begins in earnest. Working with screenwriter William Nicholson, Howard is able to create an unusually immersive experience by using the Top Gun: Maverick approach to writing. For example, when the rescue actually begins, the game plan has been repeated so many times, and the geography of the area has been well defined, you know exactly where the obstacles are and, more importantly, where the rescue lies.
It often feels like being trapped underwater with the divers, the most prominent of whom are played Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman. But despite my concerns pouring into the film, Thirteen Lives doesn’t feel like a White Savior narrative. Part of the reason for this is the stripped down tone, but a more important reason is that Howard goes out of his way to emphasize the locals’ contribution.
There’s a moving subplot about nearby farmers who allowed the authorities to flood their land with the water pumped out of the caves, and a deeply intriguing parallel operation that saw a bunch of Thais meticulously covering sinkholes at the top of the mountain . to prevent rainwater from further flooding the caves. Howard also consistently emphasizes the spirituality inherent in Thai culture – there are short cutaways of monks praying for the survival of the boys, and a short story about the spiritual significance of the mountain itself. This provides a nice contrast to the sober, scientific mentality of the divers. Mortensen’s character, in particular, vocally rejects superstitions and routinely pierces even the slightest hint of hope with reality checks.
Even if the cubs are found, he says, how on earth can they expect to swim underwater for almost three hours? Concerns like these inspire him to conjure up Edgerton’s character, who appears for a reason halfway through the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime. I won’t spoil it here.
Thirteen Lives is the kind of film where every bar, every department, every moving part comes together to serve the story. It has the driving narrative drive of The Martian but also the gritty realism of Captain Phillips. By the way, at the very end there is a short scene in which the five main divers gather in an inconspicuous room immediately after the operation. Bateman delivers a wordless performance so moving it’s almost embarrassing to have missed the usual Hollywood hype.
This is one of the best movies of the year. Not a soul would have bet on the boys – they were doomed – but you can sure bet money on Thirteen Lives being a big Oscar contender next awards season.
director – Ron Howard
Pour – Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Vithaya Pansringarm
valuation – 4.5/5