Thirteen Lives Flattens The Incredible Story Of The 2018 Tham Luang Cave Rescue

On the plus side, the film hasn’t been hijacked by Hollywood excess. Unfortunately, it’s got less heart than the documentary on the same subject, The Rescue
Thirteen Lives Flattens The Incredible Story Of The 2018 Tham Luang Cave Rescue

Director: Ron Howard
Writers: William Nicholson
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Paul Gleeson, Tom Bateman

A group of boys and their coach are playing football on a sunny day. The camera can't resist slowly panning up to the mountain looming above them in a moment of ominous foreshadowing. Audiences who followed the 2018 Tham Luang rescue know what's coming next — that group will find itself trapped in the complex network of caves under that mountain for 18 days, waiting to be rescued as the water levels inside rise and their oxygen levels decrease dangerously. Thirteen Lives, on Amazon Prime Video, is a straightforward recounting of the rescue mission. Directed by Ron Howard, the film operates on the idea that the real-life operation was so fraught with danger, so jaw-droppingly audacious in its execution, and so heartwarming in what it revealed about humanity's ability to band together in a crisis that it's probably best to let the story speak for itself without added frills. 

This approach proves to be alternately smart and tedious. While it makes for a grounded story that isn't hijacked by Hollywood excess, it's also one that's drab, too sprawling in its approach and robbed of tension. As the rescue mission is put together and carried out in, it's hard to not think of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's superior 2021 documentary, The Rescue. Pieced together from rescue footage and recreated dives shot at a pool in England, it takes a while to get going but its biggest achievement is how it conveys the depth of generosity and selflessness of the group of rescue divers. The documentary skillfully depicts how most of these men, who've spent their lives in deep dark crevices engaging in a solitary activity in avoidance of other people, now have to employ those same skills to become humanity's singular lifeline to the trapped boys. The implication is that of the several miracles required to pull off the intricately plotted mission on a technical level in 2018, perhaps the biggest was that there were willing volunteers for it.

Two of these were firefighter Rick Stanton and IT consultant John Volanthen, both expert cave divers from the United Kingdom. In Thirteen Lives, these characters are written in broad strokes, with repeated references to a shared love of Custard Creams, which is meant to convey their longstanding friendship. Their history is lent depth by the performances of Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, who both banish their natural charisma to murky depths in order to play these two parts. The body language Mortensen imbues Rick with speaks to a lifetime of experience in the water, but little knowledge of how to act when on dry land. Rick's lack of social graces — in The Rescue, he angrily discards beaded bracelets that have been blessed by a local monk after seeing no practical use for them — is blunted even further in the film. "I don't even like kids," is what he says upon receiving a call appraising him of the situation. John is more tactful and personable, Farrell's gait suggesting that the diver's apologetic nature developed as natural overcompensation for his friend's brusqueness. Howard visually underscores the idea of heroes emerging from the unlikeliest of places through shots of these two men, bespectacled and in shorts, attending briefings at which everyone else is in Army gear. 

Thirteen Lives doesn't zero in on their heroism, instead including scenes that spotlight the sacrifices of locals too. In one scene, farmers are willing to lose their crops if diverting the water into their fields means that the caves stay dry (a scene that isn't in The Rescue). Another Thai group works tirelessly to lay pipelines so that water is prevented from gushing in through the top of the mountain. The film's broadened scope makes for more inclusive storytelling — carefully veering away from positioning the rescue as a White-saviour narrative — but it also costs the story its tautness.

Thirteen Days repeatedly reminds audiences of the ticking clock, though it only serves to document the mission timeline, doing little to dramatise its urgency

The eagerness to showcase everyone's heroism also robs them of their innate human complexity. One of the divers in The Rescue wonders aloud how he'd cope if the child entrusted to his care died. It's a startlingly honest confession made to camera, highlighting the human tendency to centre oneself even in the midst of a national, if not global, tragedy. By contrast, the divers in Thirteen Lives are single-mindedly focused on the job. At one point, the governor grimly declares, "If we fail, the failure is mine alone." It's a strikingly different sentiment from the one depicted in the documentary, which shows plans were made to safely extract the rescue team from Thailand after the was warned that it would face the punitive Thai judicial system if the rescue failed.

The leanest and most tense portions of Thirteen Lives are the underwater scenes, with the immersive sound design capturing the constant gurgling of the water, the clank of the divers' metal cylinders against the rocks and the rasp of their oxygen intake. Sequences in which the men fit their frames through the narrowest of crevices and feel their way between razor-sharp stalactites and stalagmites, with only a single beam of light to guide them, are well-calibrated to create the terrifying impression that anything could go wrong. One of the film's few emotionally-affecting scenes also takes place in the caves — the boys' flashlights slowly click off after Rick and John find them and then leave to get help. Once again, the group is resigned to utter darkness.

One of The Rescue's most glaring failures was its inability to secure interviews with any of the boys or their families, which made for an incomplete (though gripping) story, seen solely through the lens of the rescuers. Thirteen Lives adds texture to its narrative by layering in details such as a mother who missed her son's last football game because she was so occupied with work. How heavily does the guilt of being a working mother weigh on her throughout the 18 days he's trapped? The film, having broached the question, never volunteers an answer.

Thirteen Days repeatedly reminds audiences of the ticking clock, through conversations between the characters, a detailed timeline of the day the boys went missing and onscreen text noting the time elapsed each time the rescue team dives in. All this serves only to document the mission, doing little to dramatise its urgency. The film is 147 minutes long, which relays what a painstakingly slow process the rescue was, but it unfolds too languidly. Only towards the end does Howard induce a few moments of genuine panic.

With its unwavering focus on how the operation was carried out, Thirteen Lives struggles to find emotional resonance. In The Rescue, Rick's introduction to the dire Tham Luang situation comes through a Thai woman he met on holiday in the UK and eventually fell in love with, only for her to return home despite feeling the same. The documentary ends with Prince William telling Rick that he needs to marry her. In Thirteen Lives, director Ron Howard and writers William Nicholson and Don MacPherson focus solely on the brains of the men involved in the operation. As a result, the film neglects the most cinematic of human possessions — the heart.

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