MOVIE: Thirteen Lives

When Titanic came out, the big joke everyone had was “We already know the ending!”

Of course, James Cameron gave us a fictional story to go with the sinking.

I was worried Ron Howard would do something like that with this story. I loved his true story Rush, about the race car drivers, but he added fictional elements that bothered me. It also bothered me that he did that with the equally terrific Cinderella Man, to name another (I won’t mention Hillbilly Elegy, as I’m trying to forget that film).

So it was a pleasant surprise that Howard refrained from doing that here, and gave us a sometimes low-key story about an incredible rescue. It’s also a surprise considering we got the documentary about it (The Rescue) last year. I’m certainly glad he made this movie because it was powerful and gripping to watch. I was holding my breath the entire time (pun intended).

This is the true story of the Thai soccer team of 12 boys, and their young assistant coach, who went into one of the local caves before they were going to go to a teammate’s house for a birthday party. The monsoon that trapped them in the summer of 2018, will give anyone a claustrophobic fear as we watch various divers try, unsuccessfully, to make the rescue. If you don’t know how long they were trapped or what happened, I wouldn’t dare to spoil it. I will say that if what they did was proposed in a fictional film, nobody would believe it. I realize that’s a cliche, but it’s so true.

There was something so uplifting about watching local volunteers from the Chiang Rai Province, using sandbags and pipes to divert the water from flooding the cave, and the farmers that sacrificed their crops. Then there were people all over the world, not just pesky reporters, but experienced divers and rescuers flying in to help. This is where we meet retired firefighter Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and IT consultant John Volanthen (Colin Farrell). They’re experienced English cave divers, and the Thai Navy SEALS don’t seem happy to see them come up to do a job they feel they’re capable of doing. Now, I saw two critics on Rotten Tomatoes complain about the “white savior” elements – one of many reasons to ignore Rotten Tomatoes as a source for movie reviews. This is a true story, and Howard is telling this story. I was more bothered that we don’t get much of a backstory on Stanton. We see Volanthen dealing briefly with an ex-wife and his young son, which was all we needed. Not sure why Stanton had nothing going on when we see him receive the phone call in the beginning, or returning home at the end. But I digress.

It’s stressful enough watching these divers go through murky waters, tough currents, and small passageways to even get to the boys. It’s even more stressful listening to them try to figure out what they’ll do to get them out from where they’re stuck. This isn’t the type of rescue where you can send a helicopter down a canyon to retrieve a hiker. The divers spend hours, with oxygen tanks strapped to them, just to get to where the boys are trapped.

When Richard Harris shows up (the always welcome Joel Edgerton), the plot (and water) thickens. He’s not the most experienced diver around, and as he mentions that, they ask him to do something incredibly dangerous to rescue these kids.

William Nicholson wrote the script, and he’s done a few other survival stories (the interesting Everest, the disappointing Unbroken). He nails it here, and Howard was the perfect director. There’s a lot of dramatic tension, which is suprising since we know what the outcome is going to be. Both those guys deserve credit for that. 

Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Memoria, Call Me By Your Name) probably had a tough job with this underwater shoot, but pulls off all the maneuvering that was involved.

It was refreshing that with two A-listers like Farrell and Mortensen, they were a bit restrained. Farrell shows some emotion a few times, which you can imagine, given the gravity of the situation. Mortensen gives these terrific looks, that shows he’s a world-weary character, that doesn’t want the locals to keep praising them when he’s sure that in a matter of days, their job is going to be retrieving dead bodies from a cave. Perhaps the emotion and positivity that Farrell displays stems from the fact that he has a young son at home and is thinking about him.

There were three times during this where I cried my eyes out. Two of those times were tears of joy. Another time, it was watching the coach in the cave, reading a letter from the parents. They’re thanking him for taking care of their kids, while he feels responsible for them being in this situation.

The movie felt a bit long at two and a half hours, and things got a bit repetitive. For example, we didn’t need to keep seeing maps on the screen showing us how far they were at various points during the rescue.

This movie is definitely worth catching. My wife and I enjoyed it, although if you’re considering learning to scuba dive, you may want to skip this.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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