Ron Howard’s Dutiful Thai Cave Rescue Film – The Hollywood Reporter

The Most Haunting Frame in Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives shows a huddle of bicycles, hurriedly deposited along the metal fence leading into Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand. They belong to the 12 soccer players (between the ages of 11 and 16) and their 25-year-old coach, who decided to go exploring one muggy day in late June 2018. What the group thought would be a brief post-practice excursion on familiar terrain turned into an 18-day nightmare. Hours after the team entered the underground karstic cavern, it flooded.

Most people know the story of the mission to rescue the soccer team, even if they’re hazy on the details. The news galvanized the international community and drew a captivated, sympathetic audience. Thirteen Lives is not the first attempt to tell the tale. In 2019, Tom Waller premiered his uneven docudrama The Cave at the Busan International Film Festival. Two years later, directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Soil) unveiled The Rescuea riveting documentary that includes hours of never-before-seen footage.

Thirteen Lives

The Bottom Line

A reliably tense retelling lacking in depth.

Release date: Friday, July 29 (MGM); Friday, August 5 (Amazon Prime Video)
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Paul Gleeson, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: William Nicholson (screenplay by), Don MacPherson (story by)

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 22 minutes

with Thirteen Lives, Howard, along with storywriters Don MacPherson and William Nicholson, attempts his own worthy retelling by focusing on the boys, their families and the coordination needed among the volunteers to save them. It’s a restrained rendering of the events, a drama that plays, at times, like a documentary. But if Howard’s decision to spotlight the Thai characters in this harrowing narrative is a sound one, there’s an unfamiliar stiffness and self-consciousness in the director’s approach — an inability to marry the fast-paced, no-nonsense heroics that are his strong suit dele with more emotionally textured storytelling. The resulting awkwardness prevents the movie, for all the surreal tension and bravery it depicts, from feeling urgent or surprising.

The opening shots of the 12 boys engrossed in a soccer game positions Thirteen Lives as a movie about the heart and humanity of its subjects. The nail-biting action of the rescue takes a back seat as we watch the lives of the boys, hours before they ventured into the cave, unfold. Their scenes of play are intercut with establishing shots of bulbous clouds sailing across the sky, an outline of the mountainous landscape and the wind blowing through verdant farmland. (Main shooting took place in Australia because of COVID-19 restrictions, but these glimpses of the natural world, along with clips of the townspeople, were taken in Thailand.)

Howard focuses on the beginning of the film on nearby town Pong Pha and its inhabitants instead of the five white divers — Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), James Volanthen (Colin Farrell), Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson) — credited with saving the boys. It’s a move that keeps Thirteen Lives from completely succumbing to a white savior narrative.

Howard portrays the tension between Rick and James — the first of the international cave divers to arrive in the rural province — and the Thai Navy SEAL officials with clarity. The two Brits are outsiders, and their initial attempts to help are met with resistance. Rick’s cantankerous attitude and skepticism toward the Pong Pha residents’ traditions are aggravating factors. James somewhat reluctantly mediates between his longtime friend and the Thai officials, tempering Rick’s pessimism with his own optimistic sentiments.

DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s (Memoria, Call Me By Your Name) unobtrusive camerawork shields the film from the domineering and condescending approach so often on display when a white auteur meets a subject of color. Yet some occasional perspective shifts detract from the film’s overall sensitivity. When Rick and James, after hours of swimming through the narrow, flooded passageways of the cave, happen upon the boys, they’re elated. They begin filming them as proof for those waiting at the entrance. There’s a brief moment or two when we see the boys from the divers’ perspective; the in-your-face manner in which Rick and James record them feels uncomfortable, invasive.

It doesn’t help that the parts of Thirteen Lives that focus on the boys’ families feel too studied, too constricted to fully offset those moments that implicitly yield to the white gaze. Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, who plays a boy named Chai’s mother, can only do so much with a role that asks her to shift frantically between worried looks and fervent prayers. A flicker of the character’s potential is seen when she yells at government officials for not giving the parents enough answers. I wish more time were devoted to slices of this story or even scenes of how the boys survived, rather than the discomfort the divers felt with the press.

Elaborating on the emotional lives of the parents might also have better paced the narrative, which moves somewhat tediously — uncharacteristically so, considering Howard’s usual preference for brisk and efficient storytelling — until the rescue operation. Once the international team of divers is assembled, Thirteen Lives wake up. The suspense inherent in planning and executing the rescue stimulates a sleepy story, energizing the relationships among the divers, especially Mortensen and Farrell’s characters. The fraternal and competitive layers between them are illuminated as they take to the water, navigating the dark cave tunnels.

Like the Bifurto Abyss in Il Buco, Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s remarkable film about a group of young speleologists exploring one of the world’s deepest caves, Tham Luang Nang Non is its own character — a force to be tackled with patience and wit. Production designer Molly Hughes’ recreation of the cave interior enlivens the latter half of the film, which unfolds in its twisted passageways. Sound is equally key to the film’s varying effectiveness. When Howard pulls back on Benjamin Wallfisch’s otherwise fine score, the dive scenes gain greater potency. The noises of water colliding with the walls of the cave or labored breathing through an oxygen mask conjure the suffocating nature of swimming through unknown territory more vividly than any music could.

Above ground, the volunteers who come to help save the boys are also busy at work. Howard seriously and faithfully captures other roles that were critical to the rescue, from the medical staff stationed at the entrance to the Thai engineer who corralled local farmers to help pump rainwater out of the cave. Even now, years later, that level of teamwork is breathtaking, and Howard’s choice to chronicle those efforts gives Thirteen Lives its own kind of staying power.

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