Some stories will always captivate. They will always reveal something about the human condition. The 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand is one such story, and it forms the basis of Thirteen Lives, the latest from director Ron Howard, who offers an immersive, thrilling tale about one of the most unbelievable stories of modern times.
Many viewers will be familiar with this recent history, which was also the subject of the 2021 documentary, The Rescue. In June and July of 2018, twelve young boys and their soccer coach were trapped in a cave by unexpected, heavy rainfall. The event called for an unprecedented rescue effort by hundreds of people in Thailand and other experts from around the world. More than a week after the boys went missing, they were found by a pair of first-class, volunteer cave divers from Britain — Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) — who were recruited by Thai officials.
And that is more or less where Howard’s film begins. Thirteen Lives centers on the rescue effort, weaving together the work of the British divers, the Thai Navy SEALs and other members of the military, local farmers, topography experts, political figures, religious leaders, and, of course, the families of the boys and members of their community. While Stanton and Volanthen feature as the film’s protagonists, there are too many other heroes to name.
Working to rescue a group of young boys from death should not be a controversial objective, yet Howard incisively shows how the messiness of society writ large still comes to inform even the most dire events. For example, the provincial governor, Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), we learn, was about to be relieved of his duties, but was instead asked to stay in the role through the rescue. The reason, he speculates, is that if things go wrong, he will be the fall guy. Howard shows the good too. In one particularly compelling moment, rescue mission leaders meet with local farmers. They ask the group if they can divert the heavy rainfall onto their land, thus killing their crops. After a brief discussion, the farmers consent. Anything, they say, to save the boys.
Expertise becomes one of the film’s primary concerns. A young Thai man surmises a way to stop the flow of water into the cave. When materials run out, another, older man comes up with a way to harvest pipe of their own from the forest. The film shows the respectful tension between the British divers and the Navy SEALs, who naturally wanted to be in charge. The conflict becomes not a question of courage, but experience. The British divers were among the few people in the world capable of successfully navigating such a mission. In the film, just as in real life, many Thai Navy SEALs did dive to the boys. But missions by SEALs stopped when tragedy struck. Saman Kunan, played by Sukollawat Kanaros, drowned while attempting to bring wet suits to the boys. Howard and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s offer a haunting depiction of Kunan’s heroic sacrifice.
Thirteen Lives superbly balances the cerebral with the visceral. The camera takes us under the water, into the wet suits of the men diving for hours in the tunnels of these dark caves. The filmmaking becomes an immersive experience during which one might briefly struggle to breathe. Rain constantly pours. Sounds of the water seem to fill the ears and every part of the body. The pervasive wetness showcases the capriciousness of the natural world, the film’s only real antagonist.
As the men continue to dive, their expertise becomes a burden. Their proximity to the rescue brings them face-to-face with the truth: the chances of successfully rescuing one boy, let alone all of them, were close to zero. The reality of the situation brings Stanton to suggest the unprecedented. He brings friend and fellow diver Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), also an anesthetist, into the fold. Stanton suggests they sedate the boys to bring them out of the cave. Harris at first rejects the idea, citing the various medical risks. However, he soon joins the others in realizing there is no other way.
It is always a double-edged sword knowing how a film based on a true story will end, but one of the great joys comes from still being taken by the happenings on screen. The final stage of the rescue mission is one of the most thrilling movie experiences of the year. The speed and precision with which Howard showcases this tale makes it all the more unbelievable. Even viewers in the know may begin to wonder whether all actually does work out in the end, and when the final head emerges from above the water at the entrance of the cave, the relief feels as genuine and as the closest thing to being there on that very day.
One could easily imagine a more gratuitous take on this story. A group of British divers coming to the rescue is perfect fodder for perpetuating “white savior” tropes. Naturally, there is a bit of that. But the filmmakers avoid the usual pitfalls in ways that Hollywood should take note. When each of the divers returns to the entrance of the cave with a sedated boy, they are met by hundreds of volunteers: military personnel, doctors, and other professionals there to treat and take care of the boys. In those moments, the film pivots from a thrilling depiction of real events, to a moving meditation on the power of community.
Thirteen Lives debuts in select theaters on July 29, 2022 and on Prime Video from August 5, 2022
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