Ron Howard has proven to be adept at telling human interest stories. Stories that capture actual life events in far more controlled environments. His latest, Thirteen Lives, hits Prime Video today after spending an Oscar-qualifying week in selected theaters.
Thirteen Lives is the biographical story of the 2018 events of a junior football team and their coach trapped in the Tham Luang Cave and the harrowing rescue efforts that followed over 18 days. Visually, the film holds its tension for its nearly 147-minute run time. The level of detail, not only in the recreated catastrophe and the families’ struggles to get the government’s cooperation to mount a rescue, but the technical craft displayed in such tight quarters highlights the story.
The main cast features Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton, and I confess, despite how extensive the reach of this event was in 2018, I don’t remember the disaster being on the news. It is a bloody miracle that they managed to rescue all 13 lives and only lost two rescuers. Howard’s direction doesn’t let us forget it.
The story paints the Thai military divers as unable to accomplish the task but willing to do so, requiring resources from other countries.
Mortensen plays the timid Richard Stanton, a British civilian cave diver. The latter traverses the cave’s ultimate length between its origin point and the point at which the football team and their coach were stranded. We feel Mortensen’s timidness, unsure of what challenges the cave will present as he undertakes said challenge.
Farrell plays John Volanthen, a British IT consultant who cave dives as a hobby and specializes in cave rescues. Farrell convincingly portrays someone who is a go-getter in the face of an overall timidness from the local authorities, who seek to contain first and ask questions later. This led to the local politics between the region’s governor and the mayor ready to resign. It is fortunate that Volanthen, at least in the movie, had Stanton.
As the rescue efforts tighten, we appreciate Howard’s attention to technical detail, namely in Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, which spends much of the film’s time in dark, dank, deep caves or just deluged in a downpour. The tight space also allows us to see the emotions on the characters’ faces more readily, given the narrower scope of the imaging.
The actual rescue is no less harrowing. One of the details that Howard did was to note details of the team’s progress through the cave overlaid with graphics on the screen. This gives us a better story of how much work it was to mount the rescue effort without distraction and why the team brought in Joel Edgerton’s Richard Harris.
Harris is an anesthesiologist. Since I couldn’t recall as many details about the actual event and wanted to go into the movie as cold as possible, Edgerton’s character surprised me until the story revealed the dangerous method by which they made the eventual rescue. Edgerton was the least adventurous of the group, playing the character dynamics exceptionally well, as an excellent dramatic counter to Mortensen and Farrell. The story folds character drama for our main characters; however, Harris’ drama fades into the background following the completion of the rescue.
Thirteen Lives’ visual and technical achievements don’t account for much without a fantastic Benjamin Wallfisch score, which keeps the tension building and the anticipation mounting. Much like the rescue effort, it took a team of talented, creative people to bring Thirteen Lives to the screen.
Seek Thirteen Lives out on Prime Video now.