Directed by: Ron Howard
Premise: Based on true events. In Thailand, a youth soccer team and their coach become trapped in a flooded cave system. Locals, the Thai military, and international cave diving experts race against time to save them.
What Works: Ron Howard is a filmmaker who has worked in various genres and has adopted different cinematic styles depending on the needs of the project. There is a niche within Howard’s filmography of stories about specialists relying their expertise, namely Apollo 13 and 2013’s Rush. These also happen to be some of Howard’s best movies and Thirteen Lives is part of that niche. The filmmakers adopt a naturalistic style that gives the movie a vivid sense of reality. Thirteen Lives is fundamentally about cooperation in service of a common goal. The local community, Thai politicians, members of the military, and western dive experts must work together in order to save the boys and their coach before the cave fills up with water. In order to do that they must set aside their egos and acknowledge each other’s expertise. The emphasis on cooperation gives Thirteen Lives a pleasant humanistic quality. It is hopeful about the possibilities of people from different nationalities and social strata working together but the stark realism keeps the movie from becoming hokey or maudlin. The success of Thirteen Lives is all the more exceptional when setting it against Hollywood’s track record with these kinds of stories. It’s easy to imagine a version of Thirteen Lives in which the western characters take over and save the day. This film doesn’t deny the divers’ heroism but it does credit the efforts of everyone else. The second half of Thirteen Lives is especially strong as the rescuers mount a dangerous and untested rescue plan before the cave fills up with water. The peril is palatable and the action is impressively edited to eliminate redundancies while drawing out the tension.
What Doesn’t: The first half of Thirteen Lives plays rather flat. The naturalistic filmmaking style gives the movie a credible look but the scenes are staged in ways that tend to downplay the drama. There is little sense of urgency throughout the film’s first half. In an effort to credit all the parties involved, the filmmakers may have overcompensated and minimized interpersonal conflicts. It is intimated that the western divers and the Thai military are stepping on each other’s toes but little comes of it. As a piece of drama, the film would have benefitted from more overt conflicts that would have paid off in the resolution.
DVD extras: On Amazon Prime Video.
Bottom Line: Thirteen Lives is a feel-good movie in a way that comes across earnestly humanistic. The first half is a little flat but once it gets going the movie is tense and thrilling. This is Ron Howard’s best movie in nearly a decade.
Episode: #913 (August 14, 2022)