Review: Ron Howard Dives into the Harrowing Rescue of a Thai Soccer Team in Thirteen Lives

On certain rare occasions when a filmmaker adapts a book or play and essentially films everything in that source material, people will say that the director simply “shot the book/play.” For reference, people frequently referred to Peter Jackson’s work on the three Lord of the Rings movies in such a way, even if it isn’t entirely accurate. So while watching director Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives—his telling of the 2018 incident in which 12 boys from a Thai soccer club and their coach became stuck in the Tham Luang cave during an unexpected rainstorm and the ensuing rescue operation—I couldn’t help but think “He shot the documentary.” 

Just last year, Oscar-winning directing team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo, Meru) released The Rescue, which is quite simply one of the most tense and perfectly constructed works about a rescue operation that has ever been made. As a result, for anyone having seen that film, very little in Thirteen Lives will seem new or suspenseful. And this fact doesn’t mean Howard’s film (written by William Nicholson) isn’t good; it actually is extremely serviceable, especially thanks to performances by the likes of Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen and Joel Edgerton, all playing divers who did the bulk of the rescue planning and actual diving.

I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but one of the things that makes Howard so successful in most of his works is that he doesn’t impose a style on his movies. You can’t watch one of his films and know immediately that he directed it, because he adjusts his style to meet the needs of the material. It’s a deliberate practice, and for the most part, this anti-style has served him well as a storyteller. I’ve never found myself confused by a Ron Howard movie because he lays out sometimes-complicated plots and helps us keep everything straight and ordered. With the events depicted in Thirteen Lives, there were 3,000 people from 17 countries helping with the rescue operation, and while he doesn’t have to represent each and every one of them, he does have dozens of speaking roles to manage and several groups of rescuers in different places around the mountain all doing what they can to hold off the flooding and buy the team precious time.

Farrell and Mortensen play John Volanthen and Harry Harris, respectively, who are among the first divers called in because of their experience rescuing others trapped in similar fashions, and they were in fact the ones who made it to the boys first after days of failed efforts by Thai SEAL teams. They aren’t eager to show up the locals, but they do want to succeed, especially after meeting the family members waiting in a special tent just outside the mine. Howard gives us views of how the local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) handled the crisis, just days before his last day on the job. Another segment of the film deals with a group on top of the mountain attempting to plug sinkholes (or divert water away from them) that are making the cave fill with water faster during a monsoon season that began a month earlier than normal. As a result of the diverted water, the crops of local farmers were flooded with hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, destroying their harvest, but it was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

The film allows us to explore how the media covered the events, often getting things wrong or receiving leaks from somewhere in the rescue effort. There’s even a prologue that shows us what the team was doing before it went to the cave. And almost nothing in this film was new to me. It’s well known that in filming The Rescue, the filmmakers re-created some of the dives for dramatic reenactments, and I think those restaged moments are as good, if not better, than Howard’s attempts to show us how complicated some portions of the cave were to navigate. Thirteen Lives does a tremendous job capturing small details about the divers’ lives and their work to get the team out of this seemingly impenetrable series of caves. One thing that becomes immediately clear is how easy it is to get so much diving equipment caught on the rocks or other hazards underwater.

Despite countless shots of family members panicking and becoming desperate as the days wear on, I didn’t feel as emotionally invested in their plight as I was meant to. And I remember getting highly emotional watching The Rescue, which didn’t even have access to any of the surviving children (apparently Netflix owns their life rights). It’s likely not fair comparing the two films, because documentaries will almost always win for me. But since Howard adjusts his visual style to the material, so much about the two movies feels similar, which means it’s tough not to. Still, Thirteen Lives is highly watchable, featuring some terrific performances, and perhaps a better grasp of some of the ethical questions surrounding this rescue (the boys had to be sedated by Edgerton’s doctor character in order to get them out). But if getting caught up on the inherent drama of the event is important to you, seek out The Rescue instead.

The film is now in theaters, and becomes available to stream on Prime Video on August 5.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.