Thirteen Lives brings Thailand’s cave rescue story to life with measured realism from director Ron Howard

Nothing grabs the attention of the global media – and reveals its ability to distract from current issues – like a good ancient spirit-human-victim story, especially when it involves cute children being rescued by an international cohort of heroes.

Likewise in July 2018, when the Thai junior soccer team was rescued from an underground cave by the efforts of local Navy SEALS, volunteers, and British and Australian divers – an operation that dominated headlines for what seemed like an eternity.

Filmed mostly on the Gold Coast, Thirteen Lives – directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) from a script by Gladiator writer William Nicholson – is the latest and best-known of the inevitable screen versions of the show, following the 2019 Thai film The Cave. and last year’s National Geographic documentary, The Rescue. (The six-part Netflix drama is due out next month; perfect timing for an armchair spelunker.)

Three white men in scuba diving gear and torches stand in a dark cave surrounded by other divers.
After 10 days, British divers John Volanthen (Farrell) and Richard Stanton (Mortensen) found the group alive 4km from the cave opening.(Provided: Amazon Prime)

The prolific Howard is nothing if not a steady hand behind the camera, and he certainly has form in putting collaborative heroism on screen: in films like the firefighter drama Backdraft, and its tense, gripping space hitting Apollo 13, the director’s formalism. the dexterous proved to be a perfect match for his subject.

For Thirteen Lives, Howard appears to be consciously ignoring Hollywood’s heroic style, taking his narrative cues from no-fuss – and no-frills – news reporting, where facts are checked with minimal dramatic embellishment.

After a brief prologue, the film wastes little time sending a youth soccer team (and their 25-year-old assistant coach) to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave where they will be trapped by rising floodwaters, quickly shifting their focus to the evolving rescue effort. – and the circus media officer – who appeared after the boy’s disappearance.

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