A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)
In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.
It’s bought to the in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…
Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.
Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.
In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.
Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.
But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.
A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.
Equally, the film doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.
In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.
As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast, to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.
Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.