By Lynn Venhaus
Director Ron Howard knows how to tug on the heartstrings, and with its life-or-death scenario, “Thirteen Lives” is ready-made for an agonizing Hollywood adaptation – with a happy ending, of course.
In 2018, a rescue mission is assembled in Northern Thailand where a group of young boys and their soccer coach are trapped in a system of underground caves that are flooding. Based on true events.
Like he did in “Apollo 13,” Howard creates a suspenseful narrative out of a historical account where we know the outcome, but he keeps us enthralled, using William Nicholson’s gripping screenplay to build the against-the-odds story with palpable emotional heft.
The daring rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach captured the headlines in 2018 – dubbed the “Miracle in the Cave” by the global news media — and the world’s hearts.
If you are fuzzy on the particulars, the soccer players, after practice, went on an outing to explore a nearby elaborate system of caves called Tham Luang. During a storm, they became trapped. The Thai Navy, U.S. Navy Seals, and well-known cave divers combined their know-how for a daring rescue. The Thai government and international leaders take part in the plans.
Howard, Oscar winner for “A Beautiful Mind” and nominee for “Frost/Nixon,” has many moving parts here depicting the dangers of cave diving. It’s a remarkable physical feat working with those unstable natural elements – and the underwater scenes are genuinely harrowing.
Last year, in the inspiring documentary, “The Rescue,” filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi chronicled the story, using never-before-seen material and exclusive interviews.
They also conveyed the enormous outpouring of caring and compassion from the international community, which is necessary to show the scope.
Howard uses those same elements – survival, determination, and ingenuity, as portrayed by the actors. Viggo Mortensen is Rick Stanton and Colin Farrell is John Volanthen, the divers who were the first ones to spot the boys after 10 days.
They were joined by many people to help save the boys, and Joel Edgerton plays Dr. Harry Harris, the Australian diver and anesthesiologist who came up with a risky plan. His reaction to the news that all the boys are fine will choke you up – such relief.
The actors make us feel the peril, and the claustrophobia ia seems overwhelming. Special mention to Tom Bateman as Chris Jewell as part of the British Cave Rescue Council and Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallinson, another diver flown in to help.
The danger mounts, the clock is ticking, and we hope the anguished parents have a good outcome before monsoon season arrives.
A large international cast, including many Thai characters, help with the realistic approach. Some subtitles are used for the families and government official characters.
Howard, who has been equally at home in comedy and drama since his first film in 1978, has helmed several outstanding documentaries during the past decade, including the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” “Pavarotti,” “Rebuilding Paradise” about California wildfires destroying a community, and most recently, the Emmy-nominated “We Feed People” about Jose Andres’ efforts through the World Central Kitchen.
So, giving this drama a documentary feel is natural. The tension ramps up with a thoughtful score by Benjamin Wallfisch, a frequent collaborator with Howard, who takes a pared down approach.
The cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is a marvel, and between the rising waters of the caves and the torrential rain, stunning craftsmanship.
If you’ve seen the documentary, you do feel like you’ve seen this before, but “Thirteen Lives” is a respectable exercise.
This film is another one of those compelling accounts that shows how people come together to overcome adversity. The real people of the “Miracle in the Cave,” are true heroes, and it’s impossible not to be moved.
“Thirteen Lives” is a 2022 action-drama based on true events and directed by Ron Howard. It stars Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Paul Gleeson and Tom Bateman. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and unsettling images, it runs 2 hours, 27 minutes. It opened in selected theaters on July 29, and began streaming on Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 5. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.