Ron Howard Gets Back to Basics with Rescue Drama Thirteen Lives: Review

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The post Ron Howard Gets Back to Basics with Rescue Drama Thirteen Lives: Review appeared first on Consequence.

The Pitch: In the summer of 2018, a monsoon trapped 12 young Thai football players and their assistant coach inside a cave for 18 days. The event became worldwide news and an international effort to rescue the team commenced, prompting volunteers from the local Chiang Rai Province and all over the globe to get involved.

Two English volunteers — retired firefighter Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) — were tasked to use their extensive diving experience in order to find the boys and transport them back to land. Stanton and Volanthen spent hours swimming through murky waters, strong currents, and dangerously tight passages, eventually locating the team many meters deep into the cave but struggled to figure out how to retrieve them. Would they teach the team how to dive? Drill a part of the cave to get them out? Or wait with baited breath until the end of monsoon season months later?

The answer ended up being much simpler than all those options but was arguably the most precarious one to carry out. Collaborating with Australian anaethestist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), and a unit of Thai Navy SEALs, Stanton and Volanthen strategized to sedate the team in order to swim them back to safety. Considering all the dangerous variables stacked up against them, the result was nothing short of a miracle, a true feat of human ingenuity and a huge risk that paid off enormously.

A Sliver of Hope: As the pandemic reaches another frustrating fever pitch, optimism about humanity’s capacity for resilience has continued to wane significantly. The persistent neglect, stunning incompetence, and absence of compassion from our civic and national leaders has left people confused, angry, and defenseless against a health crisis with no clear end in sight. What’s more, the everyday onslaught of depressing headlines and seemingly unstoppable subvariants has stoked even more uncertainty and nihilism, ultimately leaving us to determine our own fates and fend for ourselves when no one else will.

In that regard, director Ron Howard’s latest based-on-a-true-story project Thirteen Lives seeks to remind us that yes, there is still hope for mankind when we put in the work, regardless of whatever formidable obstacles lie ahead. Although the events of the film take place just a few years ago and already received attention from Hollywood with last year’s documentary The Rescue, this dramatized depiction of the Thai cave rescue hits particularly hard at a time where selfless acts from ordinary people with extraordinary stamina are a rarity.

Into the Deep End: Unlike his last movie, the misguided and manipulative Hillbilly Elegy, Howard takes a straightforward and reverent approach toward the subject matter here, neither sanitizing nor sensationalizing the treachery of this undertaking.

Given his fondness for historical and technical accuracy and impossible-turned-possible missions (see: Apollo 13), Howard is an ideal fit for this retelling. He focuses mainly on the fascinating nuts-and-bolts of the operation while empathizing with the individuals forced to endure the terrifying existential gravity of the situation. The script from William Nicholson, whose previous work with survival stories (Unbroken, Everest) lends credence to this text, is similarly no-nonsense and subdued, forgoing textured character detail in favor of a pared-down docudrama storytelling style.

Thirteen Lives Review Ron Howard
Thirteen Lives Review Ron Howard

Thirteen Lives (Prime Video)

That mostly works to the film’s benefit, deterring the plot from getting sucked into contrived emotional conflicts or grand, sentimental statements, instead allowing the audience to simply revel in watching smart people work together and be good at their jobs. Even though the overall execution is a bit muted for such a remarkable story and the resolution is predictable (except for anyone totally unfamilar with the rescue), Howard and Nicholson manage to build the dramatic stakes at a measured clip throughout the film’s deliberate, sometimes demanding 147 minutes.

That steady, patient touch applies to the visuals too. Thirteen Lives recalls Apollo 13 on an aesthetic level in addition to a thematic one, trading the pitch-black claustrophobia of outer space for the ominous ridges of underground caverns. Call Me By Your Name and Memoria cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom streamlines the complex underwater maneuvering through clinical, coherent camerawork. That smoothness sometimes renders the imagery generic and flat, often blunting the emotional impact of the film’s tensest scenes, but the look of Thirteen Lives emulates the clear-headed, rational thinking of its leads rather effectively.

Show No Fear: Both Mortensen and Farrell play their characters with compelling restraint, each actor smartly opting for an unpretentious and grounded portrayal of heroism. As they encounter logistical hurdles and red tape, Mortensen’s cynical, hardened take on Stanton functions as an intriguing foil to Farrell’s more soft-spoken, level-headed Volanthen. Stanton initially finds the whole journey to be a fruitless, life-threatening exercise, while Volanthen grows more and more emotionally invested, a motivation likely stemming from his relationship with his young son.

Facing the nauseating possibility of failure also extends to Governor Ostatanakorn, who attempts to reassure the media about their efforts to save the team despite not being so sure himself of the outcome. The same goes for Harris, who weighs the ethical quandary of administering ketamine to the team with the crushing probability of accidentally causing fatalities if their plan backfires. Edgerton wrings some endearing pathos from his performance as Harris, acting as a warm and calm paternal presence when tranquilizing the team even as he quietly deals with the anguish over his own ailing father.

There’s an interesting theme of emotional compartmentalization woven through these arcs and although it doesn’t lead to any further interrogation, Thirteen Lives recognizes the necessity of keeping one’s emotions in check when confronting the unknown. This kind of cognitive dissonance can lead to destructive effects on the soul and the mind, but a balance of fearlessness and caution is vital to embarking on a trek as intense and dicey as this.

It’s also one of the reasons why stories like this are so captivating in the first place; they make us believe in the power of perseverance, and that there are people out there who are skilled, determined, and willing to save us when we don’t have the resources to save ourselves.

Drama Versus Real Life: As mentioned before, Thirteen Lives is not the first cinematic adaptation of this incredible tale. While they both center on the most essential qualities from the event, Thirteen Lives’s documentary counterpart The Rescue offers a broader and arguably more nuanced portrait of the operation, incorporating more details around the mission itself and the backgrounds of the divers.

In The Rescue, the real-life Stanton and Volanthen disclose their lonely upbringings and their traumatic experiences with recovering deceased bodies in caves, which informed their lifelong hobby of diving and their subsequent desire to get the football team out of the cave alive. In Thirteen Lives, those particularities are not expressed really at all with either character. Stanton’s girlfriend at the time was also the one who first notified him about the rescue, but her role is excised completely in Thirteen Lives.

Taking such dramatic liberties is inevitable, especially given that Howard’s vision seems more concerned with telling the story straight rather than enriching the material with specificity. (One unexpected and amusing inclusion, however, is the SpongeBob cake the boys planned on eating to celebrate a team member’s birthday).

Thirteen Lives Review Ron Howard
Thirteen Lives Review Ron Howard

Thirteen Lives (Prime Video)

Even without those more lived-in features, Thirteen Lives does occasionally fill in gaps that The Rescue leaves. In The Rescue, former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died from asphyxiation after delivering diving cylinders to the team, is memorialized through brief interviews with his wife and other individuals involved the operation. His importance to the mission is honored more explicitly in Thirteen Lives, with his untimely death serving as the film’s most chilling scene.

Thirteen Lives also admirably gives the team itself a few poignant scenes. The film opens on a fun, innocent football game between the boys that precedes their entrapment. And while stuck in the cave, the assistant coach Ekkaphon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) expresses guilt to a Thai Navy SEAL over his irresponsibility in possibly leading his team to their demise, which the boys swiftly and sweetly deny is his fault. Despite how much time is dedicated to the heroes, these fleeting moments of camaraderie among the team is just as heartwarming to see.

The Verdict: At its core, Thirteen Lives is a man-versus-nature narrative, and nature can be a fearsome and fickle antagonist, disrupting the normalcy of everyday life when we least expect it and creating circumstances beyond our control. Bearing in mind the fact that Stanton and Volanthen dealt with torrential downpours that exacerbated the team’s retrieval and low oxygen levels that accelerated it, this collective endeavor to save a group of kids in the face of so much adversity and near probable death is impressive, and even sometimes moving, to witness.

Additionally, the film is a welcome return to form for Howard, containing all the makings of a competently crafted crowd-pleasing drama. If its record-breaking test scores indicate anything, it could even prove to be a potential awards contender. Thirteen Lives may not be the most emotionally stirring or sophisticated film of the year, but it does provide a temporary relief from the pervasive pessimism that has clouded much of today’s world, emphasizing how communication, cooperation, concentration, and courage can help lead us out of the dark and into the light.

Where to Watch: Thirteen Lives will be in select theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago exclusively for one week on July 29th, 2022, and launch globally on Prime Video on August 5th, 2022.

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Ron Howard Gets Back to Basics with Rescue Drama Thirteen Lives: Review
Sam Rosenberg

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