Even though we know the world isn’t suddenly spinning faster, it’s hard to shake the feeling that time is speeding up on us. In early summer 2018, 12 boys and their assistant soccer coach were trapped for more than two weeks in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, their situation becoming increasingly dire as heavy rainfall threatened to engulf the cave’s chambers completely. Volunteers from around the globe rushed to help, but as the world watched and waited, it seemed increasingly doubtful that the boys and their coach could be brought out alive. Astonishingly, rescuers pulled it off.
Yet as joyful as that news event was, the world moved on quickly, as it always does. That’s the wonder of Ron Howard’s vivid true-life drama Thirteen Lives: it suspends time for just a few hours, allowing us to put our current preoccupations on pause and marvel at just how extraordinary this rescue operation was. If we didn’t know the ending, this picture might be unbearably tense. Luckily, we have the benefit of being able to read the future even as we watch Thirteen Lives, and that leaves us free to enjoy Howard’s crackerjack storytelling skills, not to mention the picture’s bracing, casually heroic lead performances.
Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, volunteer cave divers—who knew there was such a thing?—from England who are adept at complex rescues. When they arrive on the scene, they’re greeted with distrust by the Royal Thai Navy SEALs entrusted with the operation, particularly Commander Kiet (Thira Chutikul). It doesn’t help that they show up in middle-aged-dad gear, having argued earlier about who took one custard-cream biscuit too many from the packet. As it turns out, they’re the ones who locate the boys, after barely skimming, in their bulky diving gear, through a series of terrifyingly slender underwater tunnels. “The old men found the boys!” one of the SEALs exclaims in subtitled Thai upon their return. The “old” part is only half a joke.
But finding the trapped boys was barely a start. Getting them out seemed impossible, involving some three hours of treacherous underwater swimming. The solution finally settled upon—requiring the specialized expertise of yet another rescue diver, Joel Edgerton’s Harry Harris—was a gamble, with potentially chilling consequences. In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the specifics, they won’t be spoiled here.
This story has been told on film before, notably in the 2021 documentary The Rescue, which incorporated footage shot by the Thai Navy SEALs during the mission. Similarly, Thirteen Lives stresses that Volanthen, Stanton, and Harris, though they’re played by movie stars, are just three links in the complex chain that made this near-miracle possible. One Thai diver died during the rescue, and another later succumbed to a blood infection he’d contracted during the operation.
Howard is particularly sensitive in his depiction of the boys’ families, who waited outside the cave for days on end, steeling themselves for a tragic outcome. And the faces of the boys themselves, alight with joy at having been found by the divers after 10 harrowing days, tell you all you need to know about why the rescuers fought so hard to get them out. If you can’t move heaven and earth, then you move a little bit of water, with all your strength, until the open sky comes into view.
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