‘Thirteen Lives’ review: Thai cave rescue drama treads water until gripping finish

Ron Howard's deep-dive into the 2018 expedition to save a trapped football team

At first glance, Thirteen Lives seems like a low-key title for a film about such a high-stakes real-life story. The thirteen lives in question belong to the schoolboy football team and their coach who got trapped in a cave in northern Thailand in June 2018. The subsequent rescue effort took 18 days and more than 100 divers from all over the world. It also involved pumping a billion cubic litres of water from the cave network to stop the boys (aged between 11 and 16) and their coach from drowning. It was harrowing, astonishing and captured global attention.

But actually, the film’s low-key title reflects the no-frills approach taken by director Ron Howard. His CV includes more than a few flashy movies (Apollo 13, Rush, Solo: A Star Wars Story), but this one studiously avoids any kind of Hollywood sensationalism. He and screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) presumably decided, quite reasonably, that this incredible tale of human ingenuity and resilience needs absolutely no punching up. Sadly, Howard is so restrained here that at times, he slightly flattens the narrative.

After a team of Thai Navy SEALS proves unable to reach the cave, veteran British divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) step in and manage to locate the boys after a painstaking and dangerous underwater trek. In less sensitive hands, Thirteen Lives could have slipped into a crass white-saviour narrative, but Howard minimises this by giving neither diver backstory and drawing completely unshowy performances from his leads. His film also emphasises the fact that the rescue was very much a team effort: if the local community hadn’t banded together to divert so much water from the cave network, the boys would never have stood a chance.

Though Stanton, Volanthen and their fellow divers can bring food and medical supplies to the trapped team, they struggle to find a way of extricating them from the cave. Eventually, they come up with an outlandish and possibly unethical plan that involves Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian diver with a very specific skill set, and a massive leap of faith from local official Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit). Once the rescue operation begins in earnest, Howard really captures the terrible tension and almost unthinkable risk that it involved. He also conveys some of the intense claustrophobia that the divers must have experienced each time they navigated the treacherous underwater network. It’s no exaggeration to say that what they did is almost beyond belief.

This isn’t quite enough to justify a hefty 147-minute runtime, but there’s no denying that Howard does justice to all involved, including two Thai drivers who were tragically killed in the mission. Still, for a film about feats of next-level bravery, Thirteen Lives is a little too cautious to really soar.

Details

  • Director: Ron Howard
  • Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton
  • Release date: July 29 (cinemas); August 5 (Prime Video)
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