REVIEW: “Thirteen Lives” (2022)

Ron Howard returns to the director’s chair for the new biographical survival thriller “Thirteen Lives”. The film is a dramatization of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue. That’s when twelve members of a junior soccer team, their ages ranging from 11 to 16, along with their assistant coach were trapped deep within Tham Luang cave in Northern Thailand following some intense flooding. The film chronicles the fact-based rescue attempts to get the thirteen out alive.

“Thirteen Lives” is a gripping account of an incident that grabbed the attention of the entire world. Howard goes to great lengths to emphasize the gravity of the danger the soccer team faced and the sheer scope of the international rescue operation that included more than 5,000 people from 17 countries. He also spotlights the many shades of humanity that play a big part in the story – the fear and anxiety; the empathy and kindness; the contentions and frustrations; the bravery and sacrifice.

And it should be said at the outset that “Thirteen Lives” is a technical marvel and a glowing example of the creative magic in cinema. The movie splits itself between the riveting action inside the cave and the human drama outside, and both are brought to life through some truly brilliant creativity. Howard and his team of artists pored over the actual schematics of the cave, watched hours of archived news footage, tapped into the knowledge of real divers, and surrounded themselves with Thai advisors and crew members so that the Thai culture would be respectfully represented.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Some of the most jaw-dropping work took place in a Queensland, Australia warehouse. Howard, production designer Molly Hughes, acclaimed Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, five-time Oscar nominated sound editor Oliver Tarney, and countless others recreated specific sections of Tham Luang cave. The crew built highly detailed tunnels and submerged them into four 100-foot-long tanks. The results are scenes of hair-raising realism as divers navigate the cramped and claustrophobic tunnelways.

The film is written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator”, “Shadowlands”) who’s tasked with juggling an astonishing number of moving parts. He starts his story on June 23, 2018 in Ban Chong, Thailand as the Wild Hogs junior soccer team are finishing up practice. A big birthday party for the team’s youngest member Chai (Pasakorn Hoyhon) is planned for later. But before they go, the boys convince their coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) to take them to the nearby Tham Luang cave. So the group hops on their bikes and make the scenic ride to Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park where the mouth of the cave lies at the base of a lush mountain.

The boys and their coach enter the cave at 3:07 PM. As they venture deeper in, a storm gathers outside. Eventually the clouds open up and torrential rain sets in. Shifting to Chai’s house, after none of the team shows up to the party, the parents head to the cave worried the boys will get drenched riding back home in the downpour. But when they arrive to find the bikes parked near the entrance but no sign of their sons, the parents quickly and understandably begin to fear the worse.

We don’t see the Wild Boars again for a while, as Howard and Nicholson move their focus to the growing rescue effort. Family and media gather near the entrance, the Thai Navy SEALS arrive, and engineers begin pumping water out of the submerged cave. Meanwhile, the politicians, Governor Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit) and Minister Anupong Paochinda (Vithaya Pansringarm), butt heads over the best course of action.

As days pass and situations worsen, the Thai government bring in a pair of elite divers from England who specialize in cave rescue – Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). They’re later joined by an Australian doctor and fellow diver Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton). They eventually find the boys and their coach huddled in a small dark corner some 2500 meters deep into the cave. But that’s hardly the end of the story.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The second half of the movie focuses on the tougher challenge – finding a way to get the thirteen out alive. There’s no way they would survive the arduous five and a half hour dive back through narrow crevices and against strong and shifting currents – a challenge for even the best divers. So Rick, John, and Harry must devise another plan. But with oxygen levels in the chamber dropping, they’ll need to come up with something quick.

One of my favorite things about “Thirteen Lives” is Howard’s intense focus on realism. His reliance on authenticity strips the film of artifice and keeps melodrama at a bare minimum. For that reason its tension feels organic and its emotions are earned. Even more, the sense of peril is palpable. For example, every time we get a scene of divers underwater there’s a genuine sense of danger.

If I had a gripe, it would be with how little we see from the boys’ perspective. But at the same time, it’s hard to knock the movie’s linear focus when it’s this well executed. It’s such a thorough and soundly paced account of the rescue, and even at two and a half hours there’s never moments that feel wasted. Of course Mortensen, Farrell, and Edgerton make for a terrific trio and each give firmly grounded performances. But the movie doesn’t get locked in on its three big-named stars. Howard spreads the attention around and stresses the local dynamic as much (if not more) than the international presence. It’s one of many strengths that makes this real-life study of heroism and sacrifice so moving and immersive. “Thirteen Lives” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.


6 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Thirteen Lives” (2022)

  1. I’m not fond of Ron Howard as a filmmaker but will give him credit when he does something really good. Still, I’m more interested in watching the documentary that the film is actually based on.

  2. This is a must-see for me. Glad to hear Howard spreads the attention around and doesn’t elevate the Hollywood actors above the rest. This true story is just unbelievable. What an effort.

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