11 July 2024

As one of over a thousand media covering the 12 boys and their coach trapped inside a northern Thailand cave four years ago, I didn’t expect “Thirteen Lives”, the new film by Ron Howard, to be very absorbing. Yet the director put the audience under a spell and at times, we were on the edge of our seats. As it turns out, “Thirteen” is the best movie on the Tham Luang incident so far, and one of the finest films I’ve seen in recent years.

Howard managed to mesmerize us throughout the 2.5-hour running time even though we all already knew the ending. He wanted to tell the story in a journalist style, and he did that perfectly – no more, no less. At one point, I felt claustrophobic and needed time away from the screen. I had to take a break to catch my breath before coming back to “rejoin” the rescue.

The sense of claustrophobia was almost overwhelming at times. Kudos to Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, director of photography, who perfectly “crafted” the underwater cinematography which plays an essential part in taking us inside the cave. For me, those scenes are to “show” not to “tell” us how challenging and almost impossible the rescue mission was.

Sayombhu’s cinematography also kept us on tenterhooks with the race against tide and time; hinting at the urgency of the rescue. The shots of the pouring rain and the cave were at times so intense that we almost shouted “go…go”,  like football fanatics cheering for our team to equalize during injury time. It seemed that real!

Director Ron Howard on the set of THIRTEEN LIVES. (Credit: Vince Valitutti / Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

The powerful pictures helped enhance the script by William Nicholson who respected the director’s intention of showing the collective spirit of rescue as it was in real life. While the script adds depth to the story through real characters like Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), it managed to keep any drama to a bare minimum. The script cleverly stayed free from being judgmental, and instead truly reflected the director’s intention of demonstrating the collective spirit of everyone taking part in the rescue mission as well as his conviction that the rescue was a true Thai miracle. In short, it’s a cave story focusing on humanity rather than heroes.

“Thirteen Lives” is shot from the point of that collective spirit and there is little to learn about the boys and their coaches. The storyline successfully incorporates the feelings that matter including the emotional response of the boys’ parents and the divers, especially Dr. Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), Volanthen (Farrell), and Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) while ignoring the nonsense and drama like the arrival of Elon Musk.

It’s cleverly done when one considers that the boys and their coach became tied up in contractual red tape shortly after they were rescued. The story is told from the accounts of the main cave divers who rescued the 13.

The performances by Mortensen and Farrell are excellent even though they only have a few lines in each scene. I was impressed to learn that Mortensen approached the director to request that he and Farrell do their own diving shots rather than using doubles. Although they’d been training with Stanton and Volanthen whom they play, the technical challenges of cave diving were immense for non-cave divers. Their dedication and contribution help elevate the film to the next level with the picture-perfect diving scenes, which are the highlight of the movie.

How one shoots a dive scene is impressive enough but “Thirteen Lives” fills the information loopholes from news and books about the cave rescue with the very realistic film set that is not only thrilling to watch, but also gives the actors a feel of the real rescue. Most people followed the story closely and know most of the stories yet the diving and “secret” in the cave were not disclosed at the time. “Thirteen” helped illustrate some of them – in particular how they transported the “package” out, which was top secret. The media, myself included, had no clue that they used anesthesia on the kids. This fact was revealed only after the mission was completed and the 13 were safe.

I went through the cave rescue and like other reporters, I learned firsthand about the sacrifices, volunteer spirit, the long dive, and the physical challenges of the cave. I saw the divers in the flesh as well as all the volunteers who came from within Thailand and beyond and worked tirelessly around and above the cave. I was there near the cave as we cheered upon hearing that the first boy had been rescued and for the celebratory cheer at the end of the mission.  Despite that, the movie is thrilling and stressful to watch. It was overwhelming, emotional, suspenseful, and even made me cry, which is surely a reflection of how well Ron Howard has portrayed the rescue of the 13 in “Thirteen Lives”.

By Veena Thoopkrajae