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  • Nate Adams

'Thirteen Lives' review: Ron Howard delivers gripping dramatization of 2018 Thailand cave rescue

Courtesy of MGM


You never know which Ron Howard is going to show up until the credits roll. Is it going to be the guy who made “Hillbilly Elegy,” a melodramatic biopic remembered only for Glenn Close’s transformative performance, or will it be the one behind the gripping disaster epic “Apollo 13?” In the case of “Thirteen Lives,” a harrowing dramatization surrounding the concentrated efforts to rescue 12 teenager boys and their coach who got pinned inside the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand in 2018, it’s a little of both. “Thirteen Lives” will probably work best for those who didn’t witness the captivating documentary “The Rescue” from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi just last year, but when Howard is firing on all cylinders like he is here (especially with how faithful “Thirteen Lives” is to the true story aspect), it’s enough to make you forget what the inevitable outcome is.

I’m sure it wasn’t Howard’s or screenwriter William Nicholson’s intention to follow “The Rescue” so closely, as the documentary featured intensive recreations of the rescue operation with the divers themselves visualizing the scope and depth required of the mission and literally put my heart into my stomach. Even with that knowledge, “Thirteen Lives,” with what it clearly lacks in developing the characters at the center of its narrative, still manages to showcase Howard’s best qualities and his eye for layering suspense amid a near suicide mission. The movie does an excellent job exploring the all-hands on deck effort by the locals and over 5000 volunteers who rallied together to divert nearly 56 million gallons of rainwater from the cave, giving the stranded boys a real chance of survival.

Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen do solid work playing John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, two experienced rescue/amateur cave divers from Britain who were hauled into Thailand on the recommendation of fellow colleague Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). Stanton and Volanthen discovered the boys alive first after a nearly 8-hour excursion into the cave and the next question became: How to get them out safely? Being able to sit still or follow instructions for an eight-hour hike while being completely submerged underwater would be a struggle for anyone let alone malnourished boys who haven’t seen daylight in weeks. The best scuba gear and divers in the world can’t account for basic human nature and fear.

That’s where Australian anesthesiologist Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton) came into the picture who was put in the unenviable position of putting each boy under sedation and floating their sleepy bodies through the tunnels, periodically topping off the dose each hour. At the time, this had never been done before and the present danger of drowning and causalities was almost certain, and Howard puts the viewer right in the middle of these life-or-death decisions, conveying the claustrophobic setting around the intricate cave system and offering several visual cues to showcase the incredible stakes at play.

“Thirteen Lives” could have easily fallen in the trappings of melodrama, but Howard plays the events straight (plus the mission itself is so remarkable, there’s not much room for interpretation), which thankfully leaves the movie with a sense of authenticity. There’s no showy moments or big Hollywood crescendos and the recognizable cast don’t overexert their star power. Mortensen, Farrell, and Edgerton are content with playing ordinary characters caught in extraordinary circumstances without the flashy theatrics they’ve showcased in other projects. As does Howard who gets the job done and delivers a decent and honest portrayal of the events that’ll be discussed and dissected for generations to come. 

Grade: B

THIRTEEN LIVES debuts on Prime Video Friday, August 5th.


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