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Coming Together for 'Thirteen Lives'

'Thirteen Lives' gives a dramatic adaptation of a humanitarian triumph that captured the global imagination.

Thirteen Lives (2022)

4.5 / 5
4 / 5

Thirteen Lives delivers critically. It is a top quality film. Unfortunately, it underperformed financially due to a limited theatrical release before showing up on Amazon Prime last August. Additionally, the production suffered from minimal marketing and attention during awards season, and overall very little exposure. It may be true, as Quentin Tarantino has stated, that movies released on streamers just don’t exist in the zeitgeist. It slipped under the radar. Which is unfortunate because as far as realistic adaptations of true life events go, this one is exceptional.  

A dramatization of the cave rescue of the Thailand soccer team in 2018 was inevitable, but also in good hands with Ron Howard at the helm and Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in the leads. However, it is intense. I do not recommend it for the faint of heart. I was reminded of videos online of cave divers moving through narrow spaces and how that fosters a creeping sense of claustrophobia.  

While anyone who paid attention to the story in the news knows what happened, the film remains riveting and suspenseful.

Thirteen Lives follows the ‘Wild Boars’ youth soccer team of Northern Thailand who decide one day after practice to venture into the Tham Luang cave.  There is a wide shot early on of the soccer team on an open grassy field with the shadowy, cavernous mountains in the background, foreshadowing the dark and treacherous experience ahead of them. Another bit of astute editing early on juxtaposes the slow drip of water within the cave with the rushing flood waters of the storm outside of it. Emphasizing how unaware the team was of the rising waters while they were inside the cave and how such a thing could occur in the first place.

Concerned parents

When the players don’t make it home that night for a friend’s birthday celebration, parents grow concerned. They discover their childrens’ bicycles outside the entrance to the cave which is now flooded due to heavy rainfall, making their escape seemingly impossible.  

Soon emergency personnel arrive on the scene, including the local governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), Navy SEALs and local British diving expert, Vernon Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who suggests the authorities contact the British Cave Rescue Council.  As a result, two expert divers, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), arrive on the scene.  They dive in and discover the missing soccer team and coach 4 kilometers (2 ½ miles) into the cave. It is a risky undertaking. During an attempt to provide the boys with oxygen tanks to keep them alive, one of the Navy SEALs drowns. While this transpires, a water expert works with a local crew to redirect the flooding waters from entering the caverns to help benefit the divers.  

Knowing that there will be challenges in removing the boys alive from the cave, John and Richard call in reinforcements in the form of Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson), and anesthesiologist, Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton).  With the approval of Dr. Harris, it’s decided that the boys be sedated in order to safely carry them through the tight and challenging passageways.  So, one by one, they administer sleeping agents to the kids, and guide them through the 6 hour dive to safety.

Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell)

Thirteen Lives is an inspiring story. I marveled at the response on the global stage and learned that 5,000 people from 17 countries in all worked together to help get the kids out of the cave. It is a tight and efficient story despite the runtime of 2 hours and 27 minutes. It’s realistic as well with many native speakers and locations that resemble the actual caves. The sequences under water have an intense, dramatic effect.

The film is a master class in subtext as well.  Simple exchanges of formality feel weighted with dramatic implication. Whether it’s the governor, the military sergeant, John, Richard, or the parents, we understand life or death decisions are being made on the fly without any precedent. There is also a clash of ranking. A simple stare can indicate a frustration with who calls the shots.  

The Rescue, the documentary that was released on Disney Plus last year was a better telling of this story. But Thirteen Lives remains a highly compelling and believable movie.  

The real soccer team

While the two white marquee men (Farrell and Mortensen) are popular, celebrated actors, and the face of Thirteen Lives in promotions, there are a great many Asian actors that carry scenes in the film and even out the star power. The film does not downplay the white British and Australian male divers who saved these children’s lives, rather its highlights the great assistance from the local Thai population and the wider community.   

Thirteen Lives is an appropriate title.  It suggests human life is worth saving as a universal, guiding principle.  The story is a beautiful example of people coming together across class and racial lines to help overcome the impossible.