Thirteen Lives

Thirteen Lives, 2022, 4 stars

Ron to the rescue

Thirteen is lucky (and unlucky) for Howard

Exclusive to MeierMovies, August 5, 2022

As opposed to Mick Jagger, time is not on Ron Howard’s side. That’s because the master director’s new film, Thirteen Lives, is at least the fourth filmed retelling of the famous 2018 rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped for more than two weeks inside Thailand’s Tham Luang Nang Non cave.

Though Howard’s late arrival at the rescue party has lessened the legacy and relevance of his film, Thirteen Lives is likely the best of the multiple versions, allowing the audience to feel the crisis in a way few directors can. (Think Apollo 13 underwater with stalagmites.) And in doing so, Howard has created his best movie since 2005’s Cinderella Man and one of the best of 2022.

The harrowing story was first told, of course, on TV, radio, newspaper and the internet four summers ago. We all lived it in real time, along with the “Wild Boars” team (who ranged in age from 11 to 16), their 25-year-old coach and the thousands of volunteers who poured in from around the world, hoping for a miracle after the early monsoon rains turned the cave into a potential watery grave.

The tale was then picked up by the PBS show NOVA, which featured it in season 45, episode 14, in late 2018. The Cave, a Thai feature helmed by Thai-Irish director Tom Waller, followed the next year. Though it’s narrative fiction, it has a documentary feel, with several of the real participants playing themselves, including Irish rescue diver Jim Warny.

National Geographic’s The Rescue came two years after that, opening to critical acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival. It too crosses genres, as it relies heavily on reenactments, by the actual participants. (They couldn’t exactly carry 4K Steadicams with them during the rescue.) But it’s the original, shaky, grainy footage that is most powerful, especially those initial, dark, desperate images of the hungry yet somehow hopeful boys filmed by the two British rescue divers who found them.

Those two divers were Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthem (Colin Farrell), and it’s they whom Howard and writers William Nicholson and Don MacPherson highlight. Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian doctor who played a unique role, is also featured prominently, along with Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), the territorial governor. All actors are excellent, as is the cultural and linguistic balance between the Brits and the Thais.

Howard – aided of course by the script but also by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography and James Wilcox’s editing – chooses to tell the story in a documentary style, packed with details and explanatory graphics. It’s an effective but odd choice considering the success of The Rescue less than a year ago. Of course, Howard was too far into production of his film when The Rescue premiered for him to change his focus. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if Thirteen Lives had departed from the comprehensive doc structure and focused instead on smaller stories that the other films missed.

The one part of the story that is front and center in all versions is the unique method of extracting the children. If you’ve forgotten the details, good for you, as it will lend the film even more power. I won’t spoil it, except to quote Mortensen (as Stanton) when he learns of the logistical nightmare: “You try and dive those kids the whole way, all you’ll be bringing out is dead bodies.”

So hats off for the umpteenth time to the actual people who lived this event, which, despite multiple retellings, retains its visceral strength. And kudos, too, to Howard and his team, who show an uncanny ability to induce claustrophobia while simultaneously illuminating the humanity hidden deep underground in the flooded darkness.

“It takes a certain kind of mindset for the deep-cave diving,” says one of the rescuers. “You have to be a bit nuts.”

The same goes for a director who would tackle such a difficult shoot, especially after multiple filmmakers have told the same tale. Well, if Stanton, Volanthem and Howard are indeed nuts, sanity suddenly seems overrated.

A far more insane act is being committed against the film itself. After a theatrical window of a single week, Thirteen Lives is being relegated to a streaming release on Amazon Prime. Streaming. The very word seems small. Too small for such a big movie. Unfortunately, a similar fate has befallen too many recent releases, wearing thin the fabric of the traditional film industry. But unlike the boys trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, no one seems poised to rescue cinema.

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