Movie Review: Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives” celebrates 5,000 heroes

There’s a gloriously workmanlike quality to everything about Ron Howard’s fine film of the famous Tham Lunag cave rescue in Thailand, “Thirteen Lives.” It’s one of those real-life thrillers like Eastwood’s “Sully” or Howard’s own “Apollo 13,” a celebration of competence, courage and modest bravado as people rally around a crisis, do their jobs and see it through.

Twelve tween soccer players and their young coach went into a tourist cave near their corner of Thailand inthe summer of 2018. The rains came and they were trapped. Their country and eventually the whole damned world came to their rescue.

You’d have to be heartless, or Elon Musk, to not be moved by this.

Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator,” “Unbroken”) do their version of “The 33,” telling a true story with multiple points of view with enough delicacy to avoid stepping on national pride or personal loss and avoid stepping into any “white savior” trap, as the key figures in the event were Western hobbyists — cave divers — summoned to do what mere Navy SEALS could not.

Part of that “delicacy” includes studiously avoiding showing how the kids got caught unawares, their semi-impromptu pre-birthday excursion to a local cavern/shrine turning life threatening when a sudden rainstorm left them stranded deep underground, with waters rising and oxygen levels falling.

We see the story from several points of view. There’s a documentarian “on the ground” perspective where an embattled local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is stuck with the thankless job of being the public face of the rescue effort, summoning Thai Navy SEALS, accepting the help of an expat water engineer (Nophand Boonyai) who instantly recognized the problem wasn’t pumping water out, it was preventing the water from pouring in from sinkholes on on the sides of the the mountain called The Sleeping Princess.

The governor, occasionally chewed out by the government minister who oversees him, is set up to be he fall guy when this all comes for naught.

The working class parents, planning a birthday party for one of the soccer players, complete with Spongebob Squarepants cake, are the first to realize their kids are running late. Tanata Srita plays one particularly distraught single mom, a “stateless” refugee who fears the government won’t make any effort to save her undocumented child.

We see the sturdy proficiency of the brave and intrepid Thai military, scrambling to start pumping the water out, mustering a SEALS scuba team, who are untrained in cave diving, because who has the sort of leisure time and thrill-seeking persona to pursue something that risky and dangerous?

That would be the Brits. Lewis Fitz-Gerald plays Vern Unsworth, a British expat/spelunker who offers his help to the governor. He’s the one who puts in the call to John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), a member of a volunteer British cave rescue team. And John is the one who has to the “old man” of their ranks, retired Coventry fireman Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen),and convince that this is a job only they can manage.

“I don’t even like kids,” the old grump mutters.

The heroes are flown in, do their damnedest to avoid stepping on Thai toes (and occasionally fail) and pitch in to help, managing to convince the authorities — military and elected officials — that cave diving a cavern flooding with torrential rains is a specialized skill.

Word gets out that the Thais “don’t want any foreigners dying in the cave,” thus their reluctance to accept Western help.

“We won’t die,” grizzled pro Rick growls. “I have no interest in dying.”

And before you or he can say, “Right, see you in’th’pub,” the Herculean effort to find those boys, determine if they’re alive and figure out a way to rescue them before the monsoons make this tourist attraction a mass grave, gets underway.

The first-rate underwater photography is shot mostly in extreme close-up. The divers are literally in the dark, plunging through two or three kilometers of tight, flooded underground squeezes in search of missing children. Yes, the stars mask and tank up for these sequences.

There’s also lovely Thai travelogue cinematography, of the mountain where this takes place and the rice paddies nearby that may have to be flooded — at great expense — to save these children.

Howard uses music sparingly, letting the noise of the cavern drowned in a downpour — days of rain open the crisis, and it isn’t even monsoon season — the divers’ regulators and driping silence heighten the suspense.

Farrell plays this seasoned diver, a married father and IT consultant, as more empathetic and yet tentative in the presence of brawnier and brassier man’s man Rick.

Joel Edgerton brings a lovely, skeptical warmth to the Australian “Doc Harry” summoned as a sort of Hail Mary by the cynical and seasoned Rick, whose pessimism writes all the kids off, straight away, and right after they’re first found alive.

It’s not just the accent that makes this great work on Mortensen’s part. He’s an aquatic EveryMan/EveryDay Joe here, that one mechanic who can fix your car, the fireman who knows just how to get your kid out of that burning building, the rescue diver who isn’t going to sugar-coat just what they’re facing just to protect anybody’s feelings.

Howard finds the heart in this story, and the perfect places to pluck the heartstrings. It’s an emotional movie, given a real-time “What we don’t know yet” urgency by Nicholson’s script, and a sort of awestruck “Look what these 5,000 people did just to save these children” credulity by one of Hollywood’s greatest “movies with heart” filmmakers.

Emotional or not, “Thirteen Lives” celebrates a sort of Howard Hawks “men doing manly stuff because only they can” competence, an old-fashioned feel-good movie with kids in jeopardy, turf wars over how to save them and everybody doing their damnedest to make sure Job One remains the rescue, and no other consideration matters.

Rating: PG-13, intense scenes, profanity

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Tanata Srita, Pattrakorn Tungsupakul and Joel Edgerton

Credits: Directed by Ron Howard, scripted by William Nicholson. An MGM production on Amazon Prime.

Running time: 2:27

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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