"Thirteen Lives" Review: Ron Howard celebrates real-life heroes in new drama

The story of a Thai soccer team and their coach getting trapped in a cave in 2018 became international news. News outlets from around the world reported on the ordeal. When the story was breaking news — with major developments in the case capturing the headlines — it was easy not to fully appreciate the chaos that was unfolding overseas and the intricacies of the situation.

The Rescue, a great 2021 National Geographic documentary, explored the story from a nonfiction perspective. Now, the new drama Thirteen Lives, a fictionalized version of the true story directed by Ron Howard, explores it as well focusing its gaze on the English divers who helped locate and rescue the boys.

The new film offers a brief glimpse at the young people — twelve soccer players and their coach before showing them entering the cave on a seemingly quiet day. A few hours and a downpour later, the families of the boys realize that something’s wrong and discover that the boys entered the cave shortly before it became flooded. Early rescue attempts fail and ultimately, volunteer English divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) travel from overseas and enlist in the effort to save the team.

Director Ron Howard, who previously helmed other movies based on true events (i.e. Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind), seemingly realized the quality of the story here and tells the story in a straightforward and compelling way. He never delves much into the characters themselves; he’s more focused on the mission. In fact, the film is seemingly more interested in helping viewers understand the complexities of the rescue than it is in the characters involved.

In this situation, that works well for the story as there’s a lot about the mission that requires some detailed analysis. For instance, the layout of the cave is a key component here — showing how intensive (and time-consuming) the rescue mission is — so Howard uses small onscreen maps to show how secluded the boys truly are (onscreen text also notes the length of some of the rescue dives). The screenplay also delves into why the soccer players needed to be put under anesthesia (and their hands tied) to ensure their safety during the mission. Some of these important details were easy to miss in the international headlines but Howard takes his time to help audiences understand some of these integral details that help paint a more complete picture of the rescue mission.

Although the screenplay by William Nicholson (with a story by credit for Don MacPherson) doesn’t focus in much on the characters, the dialogue captures really insightful moments about who these people are. From the Thai coach’s nervousness about being blamed for the boys’ predicament to Stanton’s pessimistic perspective (early on) about the boys’ chances of survival, the script provides glimpses into these characters without detracting from the Howard’s focus on the rescue.

Thirteen Lives seldom relies on effects or somber music to bring viewers in. Instead, it just focuses on good old storytelling with a focus on the kindness and support provided by the Thai community and volunteer divers who were willing to risk their lives to save complete strangers. Without settling for simplistic story beats, the film shows what a selfless community can do in order to save the lives of people in need.   

Thirteen Lives will be available on Amazon Prime on Friday, August 5th. 

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