You have to hand it to American director Ron Howard for resisting the temptation of “Hollywood-ising” the true story of the Thai Cave Rescue.
But when a tale is as extraordinary and as well-known as the 2018 rescue of 12 children and their football coach from a flooded cave, any cheap movie tricks to over-egg the events would’ve been patently obvious.
Everyone knows at least the broad strokes of those 18 intense days. More importantly, everyone knows the ending, so you can’t inject false suspense, especially when the real ones were already so insane.
As a dramatisation, Thirteen Lives follows an excellent Nat Geo documentary feature, a less successful indie film and precedes a Netflix miniseries. The Thai Cave Rescue is a great story so it’s catnip to storytellers.
Howard’s film is a restrained but still gripping retelling, led by a commitment to realism and a deep respect for all those involved. You can feel that belief in the best of people at the worst possible moment coursing through the veins of the film, and it powers Thirteen Lives’ hold on the audience.
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton, the narrative is primarily built around the two British cave divers Richard Stanton (Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Farrell) who first located the missing boys more than a week after they were last seen.
And that of Australian diver and anaesthetist Richard Harris (Edgerton) who was recruited into the mission because of his specialist skill.
Thirteen Lives delves into the ethical quandaries and hesitations over the agonising decision to sedate the boys so they can be retrieved through a treacherous system of tunnels in the five-hour long dive.
While we know it was ultimately a successfully mission, the personal cost to those involved have a particular punch in the hands of accomplished actors and Howard’s steady skills and sound instincts as a director.
Those scenes, while quiet and almost ruminative compared to the dive sequences, are what distinguishes Thirteen Lives from the best documentary takes on the events. The Nat Geo doco The Rescue is a riveting work but there is something distinct – not better, just different – about a dramatisation.
Of course, the signature piece of Thirteen Lives is those dive sequences. It’s not going for documentary verisimilitude but there is a realism to the underwater scenes.
Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, a frequent collaborator of the esteemed filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, does a beautiful job in evoking the intensity of those moments.
The water is murky, the currents are forceful and sometimes you can’t see what’s going on, effectively recreating the challenging conditions which all the divers operated under, highlighting how near-impossible their mission was.
Thirteen Lives centres Stanton and Volanthen experiences because it’s their life rights the filmmakers have. But despite that, the film largely avoids any unsavoury white saviour complex narratives, casting its net wider by giving time to the many, many people involved in the rescue.
That includes the Thai navy Seals, including Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot), the man who died during the mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajack Boonthanakit), the governor co-ordinating the operation and Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai), the water engineer leading a large group of volunteers atop the mountain in trying to stem the water flowing into the caves.
The film captures the scale of the operation and the strength of that co-operation, even if it can’t give enough attention to every experience. There are sections that feel rushed and stories that seem untold, but not even a two-and-a-half-hour movie has the time for everything.
And the boys’ perspective will be the focus of the upcoming miniseries Thai Cave Rescue after the team struck a deal with Netflix for their life rights.
Thirteen Lives is not the complete story but it’s an enthralling piece of a phenomenal moment.
Thirteen Lives is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video