There is a natural tendency to call the 2018 Tham Luang Cave rescue a miracle, when in fact it was a byproduct of immense ingenuity, teamwork and professionalism. So it’s a story befitting Ron Howard, whose career behind the camera was characterized not by flashy showmanship but by dependable and diligent prowess on challenging large-scale projects. Thirteen lives is an ideal combination of material and artist, a drama based on true events that relives a nerve-racking story with equal parts suspense, emotion and amazement. It is a film whose details need no embellishment, and whose modesty and frugality are the key to its influential impact.
Premiering in theaters July 29 (and debuts on Prime Video August 5), Thirteen lives lasts a not inconsiderable 147 minutes and is nevertheless defined by its narrative leanness, at least with regard to the lack of elaborate detours and time-consuming subplots. In the first few minutes, it describes the decision of a junior football team from Northern Thailand to follow up training by visiting Tham Luang Nang Non Cave. William Nicholson’s ace script outlines the personalities of more than one of those adolescent boys in mere moments, while simultaneously portraying their descent into the dark, damp lair shortly before a deluge begins to fill it with water. An unusually early foretaste of the coming monsoon season, this downpour spells what appears to be doom for the 12 children (ages 11 to 16) and their coach, who find themselves four kilometers into the subterranean cavern, trapped by impenetrable tides.
Once the basic configuration is established, Thirteen lives turns his attention to the panicked families of the boys – who were expecting them at a player’s birthday party that night – and then abroad to two Englishmen: Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), the former a retiree firefighter and the latter an IT consultant with a young son. More importantly, they are peerless cave divers. Volanthen becomes acquainted with Stanton and informs him that they have been placed on a list of possible experts by the Thai authorities. During this conversation, Stanton’s reticence and gruffness and Volanthen’s cunning and empathy come to the fore. By the time they show up at Tham Luang Cave to offer help—and also have a brief, playful bickering over Volanthen’s custard-cream biscuits—the film has outlined the character and understanding of both men in a few sharp brushstrokes.
Such storytelling skills are part of the course with Thirteen lives, whose scenario contains not an ounce of unnecessary fat, and whose direction tells by showing. No sooner have Stanton and Volanthen arrive at the scene of the disaster than they plunge into the depths of Tham Luang Cave, despite the dismay of the nation’s Navy SEALs, whose commander believes invaders are better equipped for this scenario than his men (and maybe even take command of the operation). Howard dives in with his two protagonists, his camera pointed at them as they navigate a sea of green mud and twisting, narrow passageways; his digitally overlapping maps of the cave meanwhile provide the necessary counterbalance to clarity. Shots from Stanton and Volanthen’s vantage point, their path lit only by meager helmet flashlights and their tanks rattling against the surrounding rocks, give a powerful picture of the perilousness of this mission. Claustrophobia need not apply.
Simply reaching the boys, who are alive and starving in a distant cave, is Yeoman’s work that covers the first half of Thirteen lives. More difficult, however, is still the question of how to extract them safely. At this point Howard has made clear the various difficulties of this endeavor, from powerful currents and consuming darkness to the futility of pumping water from the cave and the minimal benefit of diverting rainwater from the mountainside of the region (not that altruistic locals don’t try bravely). Taking into account looming monsoons and declining oxygen levels in the boy’s cavern, and the film would feel like he’s piling up excessively on obstacles if not for its authenticity. As it stands, even with knowledge of the result, Thirteen lives rumbles with increasing dread and dread – a testament to Howard’s you-are-there aesthetic, aided by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s clean and urgent cinematography and Benjamin Wallfisch’s urgent but never intrusive score.
“Even Stanton’s ultimate solution to rescue the boys is a source of deep uneasiness: enlisting the help of diver and anesthesiologist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) to sedate the captive children with ketamine (via multiple injections), protect their hands and legs. bind and literally transport their unconscious bodies from their underground prison.”
Even Stanton’s ultimate solution to rescue the boys is a source of deep uneasiness: enlisting the help of diver and anesthesiologist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) to sedate the captive children with ketamine (via multiple injections), protect their hands and legs. bind and literally transport their unconscious bodies from their underground prison. That sounds insane to Harris, who instinctively mocks the proposal, and it feels insane when it plays out, the risks are only offset by the inescapable reality that, without taking drastic action, the boys are bound to die. Even at this crucial moment, Howard shrewdly refuses to tug at hearts, preferring instead close-ups of his outstanding actors – both big-name ones and those who speak Thai – giving them the mixed feelings of express shock, horror of their characters, panic, determination and stress at the crushing burden they have accepted.
There are no wasted gestures in Thirteen lives, just a rigorous focus on individuals forced to risk their own lives and come together in the service of others despite their differences. Howard never hesitates to let his actors do the emotional heavy lifting, with Mortensen, Farrell and Edgerton leading an outstanding cast who do a lot by not doing too much. We get to know these people by watching them struggle and persevere, and when some of their A-list faces occasionally remind us that this production is technically a fiction – unlike Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s excellent 2021 documentary about this subject, The rescue-the illusion is maintained in large part thanks to Nicholson’s sharp, wiry conspiracy and Howard’s gracious and unobtrusive stewardship. In an era of spandexed comic book spectacle, it’s a welcome and moving portrait of true heroism and the best of humanity, as well as an example of something just as rare: skilled cinematic craftsmanship.