THIRTEEN LIVES (2022), the latest movie from director Ron Howard, tells the extraordinary true story of the rescue of thirteen young soccer players from a flooded underground cave in Thailand in 2018, and it does so in a straightforward manner without fanfare or fuss.
This is both good and bad.
But since the story on its own is indeed so extraordinary, it’s mostly good.
In June 2018, a group of school-age boys on a soccer team decide to visit a cave before going to one of their teammate’s birthday parties, and they’re accompanied by their coach. Despite the fact that the cave has a history of flooding, it’s still before the monsoon season, so the boys feel they are safe. However, torrential rains hit shortly after they descend into the cave, flooding it and trapping them deep below. By the time their families arrive at the cave looking for them, it’s too submerged in water for them to go inside and search for the boys.
They call the local authorities, who quickly see they are in over their heads, both figuratively and literally. Soon, Navy Seals arrive, but they too cannot get far into the cave to reach the boys, as it’s all underwater in narrow passageways, and there is zero visibility. The call goes out worldwide for help, and two of the most skilled cave divers in the world, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) heed the call and arrive in Thailand where they are looked down upon by the Thai Navy Seals for being too old, and while they certainly are older than the Seals, John points out that they train specifically for diving in and around caves.
John and Rick receive permission to dive into the cave, and after many trials and errors, they eventually, after a six hour plus dive, find the boys and their coach alive. They promise to return to the boys with help. When news breaks that the boys are alive, there is great joy and celebration, but Rick is not happy at all, and as he tells the authorities privately, the boys may be alive now, but there is no way they are getting out of the cave alive. For that to happen, each of them would have to be able to swim underwater with the divers for six to eight hours, and as Rick points out, even when earlier they helped an adult volunteer who had been trapped inside, he had panicked during a much shorter swim.
Faced with a no-win situation, the authorities go silent, frustrating the waiting families, but it’s Rick who suggests a very controversial plan, one that had never been tried before. Even though it is extremely risky, and he tells the authorities point blank that the boys may die, if they try nothing, they will die anyway.
Ron Howard directs this one without any frills, and it plays out like watching news footage or a documentary. It’s really well done. I’m not always the biggest fan of Howard’s movies, but he definitely taps into here the suspense of one of his best movies, APOLLO 13 (1995) starring Tom Hanks which chronicled the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. I enjoyed THIRTEEN LIVES more than some of his recent movies, including SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) and IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015). Howard won an Oscar for Best Director for A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which also won for Best Picture that year.
Here, the most amazing part of Howard’s work is the underwater photography. It’s breathtaking. The scenes of the divers submerged in the caves are claustrophobic, riveting, and heart pounding. And like I said, Howard doesn’t film these like a suspense movie. He simply lets the action unfold, and we are drawn in watching these volunteers risk their lives to save these boys. Just as astounding, the actors, including Mortensen and Farrell, did their own underwater stunts! Even though professional divers were there and available, Mortensen felt so strongly about the authenticity of the project that he and the others trained to dive in caves, and they convinced Howard to let them do it.
And while obviously it was filmed in a massive underwater set and not inside real caves, it was still a dangerous undertaking for all the actors. Their dedication pays off, because these scenes really work.
Viggo Mortensen is terrific in the lead role as diver Rick Stanton. His cool, aloof persona is perfect for a man who spends his time swimming in life-threatening, narrow underwater caves. And he’s not reckless. At one point, he says point blank that as much as he wants to save the boys, if he thinks they (the divers) can’t get out alive, he’s not going in.
Colin Farrell is also superb as fellow diver John Volanthen. He’s the more empathetic of the two, and as a divorced dad of a young son, his own child is always on his mind as he tries to rescue the trapped boys.
Equally as good in a supporting role is Joel Edgerton as Harry Harris, another diver who John and Rick call in to join them, as they assemble a team of the best cave divers in the world. And they are particularly interested in Harry because of his expertise, which is part of Rick’s controversial plan to rescue the boys. And when they first tell Harry of this, he refuses, because he knows it could kill the boys, but later, when he sees there is no other alternative, he relents and changes his mind.
The screenplay by William Nicholson based on a story by Don MacPherson is comprehensive and thorough and goes beyond just the story of the divers. There’s a whole other story of other volunteers led by a water expert who understands that the cave is not flooding from below but from the rains above, and so he assembles a team to find and plug up all the sink holes in the area, an undertaking that is nearly as impossible as the underwater diving mission. In fact, the sacrifice among the locals is just as great, as plugging up the sink holes means diverting the water, which will destroy the local farmers’ crops. The farmers agree, knowing they are helping to rescue the boys.
There’s the story of the families, waiting anxiously over the course of seventeen excruciating days, and of the local leadership who have to navigate around the politics of the lives and possible deaths of thirteen children under their watch. It’s a really good screenplay, which comes as no surprise, because William Nicholson has a ton of writing credits, including EVEREST (2015), MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013) and LES MISERABLES (2012) to name just a few.
If there’s any knock against THIRTEEN LIVES it’s that it runs for two hours and twenty-seven minutes, and with its no frills style, sometimes it seems a bit long. When the divers are underwater, the film had me on edge. When the action returned to above ground, things could have been edited a bit more tightly.
THIRTEEN LIVES is an Amazon Original movie and premiered on Prime Video and in select movie theaters. It’s one you definitely want to see.
Sure, you may already know the ending, but the story of human ingenuity, camaraderie, and bravery it took to rescue these boys under pretty much impossible odds, is one you don’t want to miss.
Thirteen lives could very easily have been lost that day. But they weren’t.
The movie THIRTEEN LIVES successfully celebrates this fact by so expertly telling this amazing story.