Howard has made a straightforward chronicle of the events and the people who came together to make a miracle happen in Thirteen Lives.

Film Review: Thirteen Lives

Film Reviews

Thirteen Lives
Director: Ron Howard 

Imagine Entertainment
In Select Theaters 07.29 and Streaming on Prime Video 08.05

Ron Howard tends to be viewed largely as a mainstream entertainer and craftsman, which may be a fair assessment, though it minimizes just how strong a storyteller he can be when he’s found the right story to tell. The remarkable, true-life drama Thirteen Lives is as perfect a match of director to material as we’re likely to see for some time 

Thirteen Lives is the true story of one of the most daring rescue operations in history. In 2018, a Thai boys’ soccer team visits the Tham Luang cave after a practice session, only to find themselves trapped when an unexpected and torrential rainstorm floods the cave, blocking their way out. The story captures worldwide attention, and efforts to bring the twelve boys and their coach to safety come from everywhere. British cave divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) work with a Royal Thai Navy SEAL team to enter the cave and locate the boys, which they do successfully. The question of how to get them out safely is another matter entirely, and as oxygen levels in the cave become lower and lower, the certainty that more rain is coming forces the rescue team to think fast and to come up with a plan that is audacious, dangerous—and the only option.

Thirteen Lives is a thrilling and immersive moviegoing experience that brings to mind Apollo 13, the 1995 classic that earned Howard a name as one of the top directors in Hollywood. This is a story that has been told on film before, most recently in the documentary The Rescue. While Howard may not bring a vastly new perspective to the material, he brings an obsessive and painstaking attention to detail. Just as Apollo 13 made us feel like we were in space, Thirteen Lives puts us right inside the cave, under the water with the divers. The underwater photography and brilliant sound design creates the sensation of being right there in the moment, and the claustrophobic tension inside the cave is palpable.

Howard goes with an uncharacteristically minimalist approach to musical underscoring, recognizing that the variety of sounds inside the cave—and the muffled sound under the water—are integral to the experience. He also chooses to step back and tell the story from a wider perspective that includes all the various groups on site. Stanton and Volanthen serve as the de facto main characters, but Howard doesn’t let the story become so focused on them that Thirteen Lives becomes another boorish white savior movie. The Thai rescuers, local officials and families of the boys are given plenty of screentime, and the mix of English and Thai language makes the film feel balanced and authentic. Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson never pander or milk the drama with speeches, letting the dialogue focus on realistic communication.

Farrell and Mortensen each have enough screen presence to anchor a film, and their low-key performances are spot on. Perhaps even better is Joel Edgerton as Richard “Harry” Harris, an Australian diver who is brought in because he has a particular area of expertise that proves key to the operation. While you probably know what this skill was, unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past five years (maybe not the best way to phrase this), I’m still not going to spoil it. Edgerton brings a humanity and vulnerability to his role that up the emotional stakes and make Thirteen Lives that much better. Sahajak Boonthanakit as Narongsa, the Governor of the region, adds gravity and dignity, and Pattrakorn Tungsupakul as Buham, the mother of the youngest boy, brings an emotional strength that is both inspiring and heartrending.

If you’re looking for philosophical drama or sociopolitical commentary on international relations, Thirteen Lives isn’t your movie. Howard has made a straightforward chronicle of the events and the people who came together to make a miracle happen, packaged as a white-knuckle suspense film. Thirteen Lives is incomparably skillful filmmaking, and it’s one the best movies of the summer and another genuine classic from a master craftsman who seems to have discovered that 13 is his lucky number. –Patrick Gibbs 

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