I'm not sure that Thirteen Lives really needed to be helmed by an Oscar winning director, however, I am sure that the film benefits greatly from being helmed by one of contemporary cinema's greatest optimists in Ron Howard. Howard has long had a knack for capturing humanity without a lot of fuss, a typical Howard film more concerned with authentic storytelling than heightened flourishes or unnecessary dramatic arcs. Indeed, it's clear that Howard completely trusted the inherent power and inspiration of the true story that serves as the foundation for Thirteen Lives and his primary job was to bring it to life in a way that treated all involved with dignity, humanity, and respect.
At nearly 2-1/2 hours, Thirteen Lives is long but never feels long. For the vast majority of the film's running time, we're focused solely on the fate of twelve boys and their coach trapped deep within the Tham Luang cave in Thailand. It's a story that captivated the world in 2018 and it's a story that continues to captivate the world as evidenced by the fact that this is already the third film made on the subject including the equally captivating feature doc The Rescue. As the story goes, a boys' football team follows up a successful practice by exploring a cave on their way home. The cave was a tourist attraction and their visit not entirely unexpected, though unexpectedly the early days of the monsoon season arrive early and suddenly the cave is seriously flooded and the boys are trapped along with their coach with no way to get out. With the rescue seemingly impossible and the news gaining international attention, Thai authorities call in British cave diving experts John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen). The effort to rescue the boys will eventually involve thousands of volunteers both locally and from around the world along with unfathomable levels of sacrifice including local farmers, already poor, who sacrifice their rice paddy crops in an effort to help divert water away from the cave.
Howard has long been known for telling this kind of human story, though this film is unquestionably his best in a decade (though, on a side note, Solo is criminally under-appreciated). There's an inherent amount of drama and emotion that unfolds in the story and Howard allows that to exist without manipulating it. Thirteen Lives is told rather matter-of-factly, though I was riveted throughout with Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's lensing worthy of being called a leading player alongside the likes of Farrell and Mortensen. Filmed in Queensland, Australia during the pandemic, a good amount of Thirteen Lives takes place within caves and underwater. It's impossible to not feel immersed inside this harrowing world and to at least get some sense of just how horrifying this situation was as it unfolded.
On one hand, it seems like character development is minimal here but I couldn't help but notice even with Thai actors I'd never seen before I found myself completely involved with their stories no matter how simply told. The heart and soul of the film belongs to Thai actress Pattrakorn Tungsupakul as Buahom, a poor mother to one of the boys who carries guilt for frequently missing her son's games because she is always working. She's also the vessel through which much of the film's strong sense of spirituality plays out from the sense of reverence with which people are treated to the regular appearance of Buddhism and its rituals and practices throughout the film.
The leading players are all sublime at portraying these types of characters. Mortensen, who speaks seven languages in real life, is a master of emotional understatement and steady presence and he's remarkable here as a diver who is willing to take unreasonable risks but has to be able to convince himself there's at least some chance of success and his own survival. The always spot-on Farrell is the leader of the team, a pragmatic risk-taker with a young son of his own who understands in Thai culture that it's important that these boys be retrieved even if they are not retrieved alive. Joel Edgerton also shines as Harry, an anesthetist who helps concoct an absolutely absurd idea that appears to be the only shot at getting these boys out alive before the monsoon season arrives full-on.
There's not a weak link among the supporting players including Tom Bateman's Chris, who finds himself in a precarious situation near film's end and you can practically feel his entire being imploding. Sahajak Boonthanakit shines as Governor Narongsak and Thira Chutikul is strong as Commander Kiet among others. I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Teeradon Supapunpinyo's strong turn as the Coach whose grief is palpable as he feels he has failed these boys and also fears the scorn of their parents.
Benjamin Wallfisch's original music is appropriately reverent and avoids unnecessary drama. Instead, Wallfisch allows his music to complement the story without ever manipulating it.
Thirteen Lives didn't need an Oscar winning director. Thirteen Lives needed a heart-centered storyteller capable of finding inspiration in the big and small moments of heroism and humanity. Ron Howard is, indeed, the perfect storyteller for a remarkable, inspirational story brought memorably to life. Available via Amazon Prime Video and free for Prime Members, Thirteen Lives is engaging and thrilling cinema.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic