by Julian Spivey
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell & Joel Edgerton
Runtime: 2 hours & 27 minutes
Director Ron Howard has always been in his wheelhouse when re-creating events or moments that captured the world’s attention in real life, whether it be the almost disastrous Apollo 13 space mission in “Apollo 13” (1995), a disgraced President going head-to-head with a journalist in “Frost/Nixon” (2008) or a thriller, edge of your seat Formula 1 rivalry in “Rush” (2013). Howard once again finds his sweet spot with his latest, “Thirteen Lives,” which premiered in select theaters on July 29 and on Amazon Prime Video on August 5.
“Thirteen Lives” is the daring rescue mission of a Thai youth soccer team lost and stranded in the Tham Luang cave near the Thailand/Myanmar border in the summer of 2018. Written by William Nicholson, who wrote a similar rescue mission film in director Baltasar Kormakur’s 2015 film “Everest,” the film’s focus is the rescue mission as seen by those attempting to rescue the boys, mostly through the eyes of volunteer rescue divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). If you want a film from the children’s perspective, this isn’t what you’re looking for.
The film doesn’t waste any of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime getting into its story. The boys are missing and trapped in the cave within 10 minutes of the film beginning. It’s rescue mission the rest of the way. The Thai Navy Seals attempt to save the boys first, but their expertise is in open water diving, not cave diving with much murkier waters and tighter confines. It isn’t long before Stanton and Volanthen are called in to help. Stanton views it as a recovery mission the entire time, not believing the boys could still be alive by the time of his involvement. Volanthen is a bit more hopeful, probably because he’s a father himself and can’t fathom losing children near the age of his son. Even after the men both find the 12 boys and their coach alive in the cave Stanton still believes they’re all going to die. It’s a six-hour dive to get them from where they are in the cave back to safety and panic among other factors just doesn’t bode well for their survival.
Stanton produces a never before thought of plan to use anesthesia to sedate the children and essentially move them throughout the chambers of the cave as if they were merely packages. They don’t really believe this will be successful, but it’s eventually deemed the only potential way to save any lives. If the boys are going to die, at least the rescuers can attempt to save them is the thought. Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), a diver and anesthetist, is brought in to sedate the boys and train the divers on how to do the same because the medication will need to be re-applied during the dive. Other top rescue cave divers Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson) and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) are also brought in to help with the mission.
It's recent news being only just over four years since the events took place, so I don’t feel it’s really a spoiler to mention all 13 lives are miraculously saved by this team of heroes making for an ultimate feel-good movie with a lot of tension and drama along the way.
The true highlights of the film are Howard’s direction and especially the cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shooting in what was essentially a man-made cave in four 100-foot-long tanks, equipped with tunnels to recreate the real-life cave. The performances by Mortensen and Farrell are terrific. The two never overplay their scenes and always come off naturally, almost as if you were watching a documentary or the real people, except for the fact you recognize their famous faces.