You must hand it to American director Ron Howard for resisting the temptation of “Hollywood,” the true story of the Thai cave rescue.
But when the tale is as unusual and well-known as the rescue of 12 children and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in 2018, any cheap gimmicks to overstate the events will be crystal clear.
Everyone knows at least the broad strokes of those intense eighteen days. Most importantly, everyone knows the ending, so you can’t inject false suspense, especially when the real stuff is really crazy.
As a dramatization, Thirteen Lives follows an excellent documentary from Nat Geo, a less successful independent film that predates the Netflix mini-series. The Thai Cave Rescue is a great story, so it’s from catnip to storyteller.
Howard’s film is a restrained but still poignant retelling, driven by a commitment to realism and a deep respect for all involved. You can feel this belief in the best people at the worst possible moment running through the veins of the film, and it strengthens Thirteen Lives’ grip on the audience.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton, the narrative is primarily built around British cave divers Richard Stanton (Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Farrell) who first locate the missing boys over a week after they were last seen.
and Australian diver and anesthesiologist Richard Harris (Edgerton) who was recruited into the expedition because of his specialized skill.
Thirteen Lives delves into the moral pitfalls and hesitations over the painful decision to sedate the boys so they can be recovered through a treacherous system of tunnels in a five-hour dive.
While we know it was ultimately a successful mission, the personal cost to the participants takes a toll in the hands of the consummate actors and Howard’s consistent skills and vocal instincts as a director.
Those scenes, while quiet and almost rumination compared to the dive sequences, are what sets Thirteen Lives apart from the best action documentary. The Nat Geo doco The Rescue is an impressive work but there is something special – not better, just different – about the dramatic acting.
Of course, the standout piece for Thirteen Lives are those immersive sequences. It is not about simulating documentary reality but there is realism to the underwater scenes.
Thai cinematographer Sayombo Mukdeprom, a frequent collaborator with esteemed filmmaker Apichatpong Werasethakul, does a wonderful job of evoking the intensity of those moments.
The waters are foggy, the currents are strong and sometimes you can not see what is happening, which recreates the difficult conditions under which all divers work, highlighting the impossibility of their task.
Thirteen Lives are from Stanton and Volanthen centers who test it out because they are the rights to their lives that filmmakers enjoy. But despite this, the film largely avoids any complicated, hateful accounts of the white saviour, exposing his network more broadly by giving time to the many people involved in the rescue.
This includes Thai Navy SEALs, including Saman Konan (Sokolawat Kanarut), the man who died during the mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sagak Punthanakit), the coordinating governor of the operation and Thathit Natisri (Novand Punai), the water engineer who leads a large group of volunteers atop the mountain Trying to stop the flow of water into the caves.
The film captures the scale of the process and the power of that collaboration, even if it isn’t able to pay enough attention to each experience. There are sections that feel rushed and stories that seem untold, but even a two-and-a-half hour movie doesn’t have the time for everything.
The boys’ perspective will be the focus of the mini-series Thai Cave Rescue after the team struck a deal with Netflix for their rights to life.
Thirteen Lives isn’t the full story but it is a captivating piece from an exceptional moment.
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Thirteen Lives are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video