Some moments in history are described as being “like something from a movie”, and the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue certainly fits that description. Thirteen Lives is the third film based on the rescue, and has Oscar-winning director Ron Howard behind the camera.
Four years ago, a boys’ football team explored a cave after practice. The normally safe tourist cave is suddenly flooded by rain, trapping the boys and their coach inside. With parents and authorities desperate to save them, expert British divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) are brought in to lead the rescue. What follows is an unprecedented effort involving thousands that would capture the world’s attention.
Howard hasn’t enjoyed much success in the last decade, with only 2013 drama Rush standing out amongst duds like Solo, Inferno, and Hillbilly Elegy. Happily, this new film brings to mind earlier work such as Apollo 13 in the serious-but-excited way the mission unfolds.
Like its leads, the tone is unfussy and matter-of-fact, highlighting the co-ordination and various skillsets needed to pull off the impossible. This isn’t to say the narrative is emotionless: the terror of those trapped amps up the tension, while there’s a moral quandary about the method of rescue, showing how desperate times can call for desperate measures.
The multi-talented Mortensen speaks seven languages, so it’s no surprise he makes a good fist of Stanton’s West Midlands twang. He’s the tough counter to Farrell’s bookish diver, underlining the slim odds of what they are about to undertake and showing the practical nature of the divers.
Joel Edgerton has a bit more emotion on display as Australian anaesthetist Richard Harris, who slowly comes to realise the gap between a nation’s hopes and their chances of success.
A great true story doesn’t need too many flourishes, and a steady director like Howard is just what’s needed to make Thirteen Lives a compelling piece of cinema. It can feel like an endurance test, especially at two and a half hours, but the cast and crew do these heroes justice.