June 23rd, 2018: after a football practice, 12 teammates and their assistant coach decided to explore the nearby Tham Luang Cave in the Tham Luang – Khun Nam Namg Non Forest Park of Northern Thailand. Unexpectedly, a storm hit, flooding the cave and leaving all 13 lives stranded inside. This sparked an international rescue mission, taking roughly 18 days as military operations involving international divers, medical teams, engineers, and more assembled on location, fighting both time and nature to locate the stranded individuals. This ordeal was explored through the Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi/Jimmy Chin award-winning October 2021 documentary The Rescue, streaming on Disney+, and now director Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, the first scripted dramatic capturing of these events to be released this year. Howard’s film deftly captures the tension of the situation, skirting the disaster-porn traps that befall other “based on a true story” films, and uplifts the very encouraging story of the human spirit, even if it means adjusting the details in the process.
As expected from the director of The Paper (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995), Howard is able to draw drama from the quietest of moments, presenting rising tension through natural moments and focusing on the human turmoil over manufactured spectacle. A tale like the Tham Luang Cave rescue contains plenty of drama in of itself and a lesser director (of which Howard is not) would reduce the local efforts in favor of uplifting the international heroes played by the famous leads. For the most part, Howard is measured, patient, and respectful, producing a film that’s often more international than American in presentation (a not-so-insignificant compliment). The script from William Nicholson’s (Gladiator) screenplay, from a story by Don MacPherson (The Gunman) and Nicholson, is tight, making full use of the runtime to tell as clear and narrow a story as possible with a cast that’s far more ensemble than led by any one character or actor. This matters in the sense that none of them should be the focus as that would pull from the general purpose of the film: to showcase an international effort to save innocent lives. To their credit, neither Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) nor Colin Farrell (The Batman), who are easily considered the leads, present themselves as such; rather, their affectations imply a smallness, a part of a greater project working toward a larger goal. Not for nothing, Thirteen Lives does provide another reminder this year of how Farrell is one of the more underrated character actors working today, so greatly disappearing into his role. Smartly, Howard and Nicholson also refrain from a great deal of moments which could be derided as “white savior” moments either in presentation to the audience or in performance capture of Mortensen, Farrell, and the other non-Asian cast members. For instance, post-rescue, it’s a lovely touch that Howard delineates between the public and private reaction to the rescue, showing the Thailand representatives in front of the cameras and the rescue divers being thanked quietly by the parents.
Unsurprisingly, Nicholson’s screenplay does toy with the truth of things. A narrative film is *not* a documentary and, even if it were, it still must contend with summarizing a great deal of information in order settle upon a reasonable runtime. To Howard and editor James Wilcox’s credit, the 150 runtime for Thirteen Lives hums right along, conveying a sense of necessity for everything depicted on screen. However, there are details either changed or omitted for the sake of this story which primarily serves to instill and uphold a sense of personal sacrifice from almost every person actively involved in the rescue. For instance, the water engineer Thanet Natisri (portrayed by Nophand Boonyai) is depicted as coming to help on his own, approaching a local known for his familiarity with the mountain, and whose efforts ended up diverting an estimated 56 million gallons of water from the cave. In truth, he was contacted by the military who requested he come help. There’s a major difference in the way the audience reacts to a character presented who selflessly chooses to come help versus those who are asked — we see this in the way that Mortensen’s Rick and Farrell’s Volanthen are on-call to come help, their dramatic arcs presented through the actions they take throughout the film. There’s also the omission of other volunteers who helped with the actual retrieval, as well as a change in the retrieval process to narrow the focus down to the lead actors. Narratively, this is wise as it reduces the number of people the audience needs to follow, but it actively cuts out a large portion of the volunteers and rescue workers who took part in saving the stranded. Again, there’s a big difference between narrative and documentary, but the omission of details or shifting of them greatly impacts how audiences process the events Howard is presenting as fact.
A proper issue that will not seem like one is the cinematography: it’s clean, beautiful, and inspiring. Director of Photography Andrew Rowlands (Carousel: Another Day) does remarkable work ensuring that audiences see the beauty of Thailand, even when rain is pelting down, and that each scene is perfectly lit so that the audience (theatrical or at home) can identify individuals whether it’s daylight outside or they’re confined inside the cave. The issue is that, with this beauty and clarity, comes a greater sense of calm amid calamity, reducing the tension of the tale. Personally, even if I knew what was happening in 2018, with the arrival of a second child, COVID-19, and more, those events were shunted from my brain, making Thirteen Lives an almost total unknown, except I knew everything would be ok merely from the cinematography. Howard’s strength as a director is his optimism and it shines in his storytelling, yet, here, it actually works against the natural tension of the story. Is there disquiet and discomfort? Given what’s going on and the deft way the camera captures the claustrophobic nature of their environment, absolutely. Yet, it’s difficult to lean-in fully when everything is presented as pristinely and unmarred by reality.
Thirteen Lives is as uplifting as expected from an affirming storyteller like Howard, even if it doesn’t quite evoke the reality of the situation between the uplifting visual presentation of the film and the apparent changes to the truth for narrative ease. It’s not that Thirteen Lives isn’t memorable. It very much is; it’s just that something feels missing when compared to the truth. In this regard, Thirteen Lives is an emotional journey to be sure, but it’s safe-guarded in a way that makes it an excellent way to inform audiences of what happened who may not know so as to prep them for the National Geographic’s Disney+ documentary or to offer a safe way to engage with the story without the documentary’s more authentic edge.
In select theaters July 29th, 2022.
Available on Prime Video August 5th, 2022.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.