‘Thirteen Lives’: Ron Howard’s film depicts Thai cave rescue at both epic and intimate scale

Heroes dive for hours to save the trapped boys in intense, real-life adventure.

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A Thai commander (Thira “Aum” Chutikul, left) works with a British commander (Viggo Mortensen) to rescue boys trapped underground in “Thirteen Lives.”

MGM

Ron Howard’s claustrophobically intense and captivating “Thirteen Lives” is one of those movies where you find yourself marveling at the daunting logistics involved in re-creating one of the most famed and complex rescue efforts in recent history—but with an excessive running time of 147 minutes, by the time the story wraps up, we’re almost too exhausted to fully appreciate what we’ve just experienced.

Almost. The always reliable Howard—who demonstrated with the brilliant “Apollo 13” all those years ago that he knows a thing or two about crafting riveting drama from a true-life rescue effort that has a particular numeral in the title—does a marvelous job of keeping us in the loop as the point of view shifts any number of times. We follow the efforts of hundreds upon hundreds of trained rescue workers and volunteers from nearby villages and across the globe as they race against time to save 12 teenage boys and their football aka soccer coach who were trapped deep inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand.

As you might recall from the global media coverage, this real-life drama occurred just four years ago, in the summer of 2018, but we’ve already had the pulse-pounding 2020 documentary “The Rescue,” and next week sees the release of the docudrama “Cave Rescue,” but Howard’s dramatic interpretation of events is by far the biggest and most ambitious telling of the tale, with Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton lending their considerable star power to the production.

‘Thirteen Lives’

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Prime Video and MGM present a film directed by Ron Howard and written by William Nicholson. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language and unsettling images). Running time: 142 minutes. Opens Friday in local theaters and Aug. 5 on Prime Video.

That might give you pause; why are so many white actors at the forefront of a film about a rescue that took place in Thailand? In truth, Farrell, Mortensen and Edgerton are playing real-life Brits or Aussies who were central figures in the story, and screenwriter William Nicholson and director Howard make sure to also focus on the intricacies of the Thai culture, and storylines involving the governor of the province (Sahajak Boonthanakit); the parents of the trapped boys, including the mother (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) of the smallest and youngest of them, and the Thai Royal Navy SEALS and the Chiang Rai local farmers who make sacrifices in the service of the greater mission.

“Thirteen Lives” begins with the look and feel of a sun-dappled, feel-good sports story, as the Wild Boars junior football players and their kindly coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) celebrate a spirited game by riding their bicycles for an ad hoc expedition in the Tham Luang caves, which are considered to be safe to explore because it’s a few weeks prior to monsoon season. But when intense rains unexpectedly come pounding down, the boys and their coach are trapped deep in the flooded and labyrinthine passageways. In one of the most heartbreakingly effective scenes early in the film, when the boys don’t show up for a birthday party, their parents race to the entrance to the cave and see a row of bicycles—and no sign of their children.

Even the best open water divers in the world fall short in their efforts to find the boys, as they have little or no experience in cave diving and aren’t familiar with the particular type of breathing, swimming and navigating involved with that specialty. Enter the British veteran cave divers Rick Stanton (Mortensen) and John Valanthen (Colin Farrell), who are eventually joined by another British diver, Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), and Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), a diver and anesthesiologist.

That last part of Harris’ resume turns out to be key, because even after the 13 have been located, there seems to be no way to bring them back—until Stanton hatches a plan by which Harris will anesthetize them so they can be transported, one at time, like packages. There’s a strong chance the boys and/or their coach will wake up along the way, at which point they will likely drown. Or the dosage will be too powerful, and they’ll stop breathing. Or one of a myriad of other complications will arise, endangering the lives of those who are trapped and those who are risking everything to save them.

Farrell and Mortensen effortlessly click together as the optimistic Valanthen and the crusty, “I don’t even like kids” Stanton, who repeatedly engage in hourslong dives. (When they emerge from the waters in their wet suits and heavy equipment, we can feel the physical and emotional toll each dive takes.) With the Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukeeprom delivering awe-inspiring visuals on location in Thailand and Australia, “Thirteen Lives” is made for the big screen (though it will come to Prime Video as well in just a week). Alternately epic and intimate in scope, this is an old-fashioned entertainment about the real-life heroes who left no rock unturned against seemingly hopeless odds and pulled off one of the great rescue stories of the ages.

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