Thirteen Lives: A solid drama of the old school

Ron Howard’s dramatisation of the Thai cave rescue is his best film in years

Thirteen Lives
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Director: Ron Howard
Cert: None
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Sukollawat Kanarot, Thiraphat Sajakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit
Running Time: 2 hrs 27 mins

After the disastrous Hillbilly Elegy, the merely efficient Solo: A Star Wars Story and that mad third Da Vinci Code film, Ron Howard returns to his most fruitful territory: true stories of brave men. Thirteen Lives is not up to the standards of his Apollo 13 — to which it bears more than superficial resemblance — or even to the rambunctious Rush, but the veteran director again gets to argue for the virtues of old-school, white-bread American film-making.

This is the third film in four years to examine the still incredible Tham Luang cave rescue of 2018. In midsummer of that year, 12 teenage members of a Thai football team and their coach found themselves trapped as waters rose in the a cave to the north of the country. It took 18 days for divers to affect an unlikely escape. Howard is respectful to the local community. The opening 20 minutes or so are almost entirely subtitled. William Nicholson’s screenplay touches on the political sensibilities without seeming glib or patronising. But this remains a Hawksian professionals-being-professional flick that, technological advances aside, could have emerged at any stage in the last 80 years. It is nice to have such a thing back — even if it plays here only on Prime Video.

The film strays just a little from the traditional heroic mode in its portrayal of the two lead rescuers. Howard dares to make John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, among the best cave divers in the world, ordinary blokes of almost suburban hue. Howard Hawks would have asked Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart to simmer manfully while lighting cigarettes with the same stoicism they bring to fighting wars or captaining boats. Here, Howard asks Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen to have occasional conversations about the increasing shortage of custard creams. We first meet Farrell’s Volanthen sharing the dining table with his son in an ordinary Bristol house. (In real life, the Englishman earns his daily bread as an IT consultant.) He and Stanton, a slightly flinty Mortensen, communicating via speakerphone, ponder the challenges and eventually make their way to Thailand.

These are two lovely performances. Neither is showy enough to divert awards voters, but the understated dedication is the point. These are the sort of men you’d trust to replace your hip joint or handle the conveyancing on your property. Wearing sensible hair and dad-glasses, Volanthen — a world away from Farrell’s Alexander the Great — comes across as the more soft-hearted of the two. On at least one occasion, Stanton is there to quash unjustified optimism. Both get across weathered experience that younger divers read as superannuation. “The old men found the boys,” a local character exclaims when our heroes first locate the teenagers (no spoiler, surely).

The duo reckon there would be no way to swim each boy through the kilometre of damp constriction and, inviting Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), an Australian anaesthetist, on to the team, plot to inject the youngsters with ketamine and pass them along like inert packages. Nobody seems confident all will survive.

Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who has shot very different films for local genius Apichatpong Weerasethakul, cannot always make sense of the intimate exchanges in tight, enclosed tunnels, but the action is clear enough to dampen palms of viewers lucky enough to be dry and above ground. The film-makers impose a map on the screen that constantly presses home how far the divers have to travel before tending to the trapped young men.

If anything, Thirteen Lives is a little too delicate in its approach to the Thai participants. One suspects domestic film-makers would have been franker about the various controversies that bubbled up over the 18 days. Family members are occasionally seen objecting to the lack of information. We learn that the local politicians are being positioned as potential fall guys. Those notions are, however, not followed up.

We are left with a properly entertaining drama that gets across the technical details with great efficiency. A good job of work by a reliable Hollywood professional.

Thirteen Lives streams on Prime Video

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist