I’m unfashionably late to this one. This film barely had a theatrical showing in the UK and somehow managed to slip onto streaming services without much fanfare. This is a shame, because Ron Howard’s ‘based on a true story’ feature steadfastly refuses to go down the typical Hollywood hero route, instead offering a meticulously researched account that unfolds its complex story with all the authority of a documentary.
It takes us back to the familiar events of July 2018, when Thai junior football team, The Wild Boars, accompanied by their assistant coach, decides to pay a trip to a popular tourist destination, the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Chiang Rai Province. As they wander deep into a rocky labyrinth, they are unaware that an early Monsoon has arrived, and that flood waters are already rising with terrifying speed, to come pouring in through every crevice. When the boys fail to show for a planned birthday celebration later that day, their parents raise the alarm – but, by now, their kids are trapped deep beneath the ground – and the rain is still pouring.
Among the many volunteers who subsequently arrive to lend a hand are two experienced divers from the British Cave Rescue Council, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortenson) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who handle the ensuing search through submerged tunnels with quiet calm and determination, only pausing to squabble over which of them ate the last custard cream. Both Mortensen and Farrell do a great job of capturing the men’s distinctive Coventry accents and their bluff, matter-of-fact approach to their highly specialised work – something which has already defeated the team of Navy SEALs who were first on the scene.
Finding the boys proves to be relatively easy, but getting them out alive – well, that’s a more complicated process, which will involve thirteen individual underwater journeys, each lasting more than seven hours. The boys have no experience of cave diving – indeed, some of them can’t even swim. With this in mind, Stanton and Volanthen decide to recruit more of their cave-diving chums. Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman), Jason Malinson (Paul Gleeson) and Richard ‘Harry’ Harris (Joel Edgerton) all answer the call, but it is the latter who will give the team their decisive edge, largely because of the special skills he’s acquired through his day job…
It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the enterprise has a successful outcome – indeed, pretty much the whole world knows how that went. But this film demonstrates what a complicated and dangerous procedure it was, how fraught with the possibility of disaster – and it is to Howard’s credit that though viewers already know the outcome, he nevertheless manages to generate nail-biting suspense throughout many of the extended underwater sequences.
He’s also keen to point out that the mission’s eventual success is not just due to the divers. There’s the young engineer who, with his own team of volunteers, works around the clock to divert millions of gallons of water away from the cave – and there are the local farmers who agree to sacrifice their entire rice crop for the year, in order to help with that process. There’s a whole army of ordinary people, cooking, carrying, doing anything necessary to keep the cogs turning. And happily, there’s no mention of a certain Mr Musk and his less than helpful approach to the situation.
Thirteen Lives is a story of human endurance and a celebration of the ingenuity of the many people who worked together to bring a seemingly impossible task to fruition.