“Thirteen Lives (2022).” When it comes to inspiring true stories, few can probably beat the story of the rescue of 12 boys and one man from a flooded cave. The incredible nature of the infamous Tham Luang rescue has captivated people around the world, and now director Ron Howard is taking on it with Thirteen Lives.
As the man who brought the riveting Apollo 13 to life, Howard is one of the filmmakers best suited to this story—and he does it with skill and sensitivity. While some elements feel underdeveloped, Thirteen Lives is a compelling look at one of the most incredible events of the last decade.
Thirteen Lives (2022): Movie Review
In 2018, the world was stunned by the news that 12 members of a Thai football team – made up of boys aged 11 to 16 – and their coach were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Noncave by rising water levels as the monsoon season soon set in.
Thirteen Lives tells the harrowing story of how help came from all over the world, involving everyone from Thai Navy SEALs to rescue divers from England (most prominently played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell). As the days dragged on, the hope of rescue dwindled. However, as anyone who has been following the news knows, this is a situation that is far beyond what anyone expected.
Thirteen lives, lasting two and a half hours, surely convey how long this rescue effort took. The actual rescue of Tham Luang Cave, which took over two weeks and consisted of countless hours of long dives, was an arduous process, and one could argue that the protracted launch of Thirteen Lives really highlights that. Sure, most of what happens on screen are riveting and can help justify the film’s length.
Howard’s portrayal of the dives, consisting of impressive underwater camera work by DP Simon Christidis and unnervingly realistic cave scenes created by production designer Molly Hughes, successfully highlights the dangers of the Tham Luang cave system.
The audience can take a few breaths during these scenes just to remind themselves that they can. At the same time, the middle sections of Thirteen Lives can get a little repetitive as Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (based on a story by himself and Don MacPherson) delve into the crux of rescue work.
Still, this detailed approach to the story gives Thirteen Lives an opportunity to highlight certain parts of the event that may be overlooked when people think back to the news coverage. For example, engineer Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai) worked outside the cave to divert millions of gallons of water away. Although Thirteen Lives doesn’t spend as much time with these characters as it does with the divers, it manages to provide a thorough look at the operation itself.
Unfortunately, it does so at the expense of the other characters involved in this saga, namely the families of the imprisoned boys. Pattrakorn Tungsupakul gives a strong and emotional performance as one of the mothers waiting for news, but her overall characterization is quite limited. Apart from her portrayal, a few close ones have influenced her. Howard instead focused much more on the divers and Navy SEALs who orchestrated the rescue, which isn’t necessarily bad. However, Thirteen Lives could have been boosted with a more comprehensive approach.
As the two English divers who draw the most attention, Mortensen and Farrell do a good job of giving their characters – Rick Stanton and John Volanthen – more depth than the script. Mortensen’s Stanton is more cynical than Volanthen, and the Lord of the Rings alum effectively portrays the diver’s conflicted emotions. Farrell’s Volanthen is becoming more serious and hopeful, making for a solid on-screen pairing.
Tui Thiraphat Sajakul as Navy SEAL Captain Arnont Sureewong skillfully straddles the line between respect and frustration; However, he wishes for the boys to be saved, and the arrival of Stanton and Volanthen causes some friction. Thirteen Lives pays homage to both sides and effectively shows that a successful rescue went beyond the efforts of two people. The boys themselves don’t necessarily get a lot of time to make an impact as individuals, but that’s intentional and still works in the film’s favor.
Directed by Howard, Thirteen Lives is a straightforward portrayal of an incredible true story. It does justice to those involved, and while it could benefit from a deeper dive into what happened outside of the rescue operation, it still knows how to tug at the heartstrings.
Those unfamiliar with the finer details of how the boys and their coach were safely removed from Tham Luang will find it an insightful watch, while even viewers who have followed the news closely may find some surprises in the overall proceedings. All in all, Thirteen Lives is a solid and impressive watch that is a testament to the tenacious spirit of the people.
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