Ron Howard

Thirteen Lives

20/11/22

Amazon Prime

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.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

In the Heart of the Sea

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30/12/15

Around a year ago, searching for a new story to write, I pitched an idea to my editor. Why not, I suggested, rewrite Moby Dick – or rather, base it around the true story of The Essex, the ship that inspired Herman Melville’s classic tale? And just to make it more relevant to younger readers, why not present it from the POV of the cabin boy?

For a variety of reasons, my editor said no and it  would now seem fortunate that she did, because this is exactly what In the Heart of the Sea is and I’d probably have found myself the author of an unreleasable book (or at the very least open to accusations of plagiarism). Ron Howard’s take on the story is a big, sprawling epic of a film, a gorgeous evocation of a lost era and I loved every minute of it.

The story starts some fifty years after the main event, when Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits the grown-up Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) in Nantucket to research the true story of the Essex. Nickerson grudgingly obliges and we flash back in time to meet Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who despite being promised a captaincy for his next voyage is appointed first mate to the rather better connected George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). The Essex sets sail in search of sperm whale and the crew experience a series of disasters that would try the patience of Job, not least the malevolent intentions of a giant white whale, who seems intent on exacting a terrible revenge on the men who have dared to take him on. The whale itself is an incredibly convincing CGI creation and while the killing of such creatures will not sit easily with contemporary audiences, this is an issue that is addressed (albeit obliquely) in the film – and the truth is that men really did go after these marine giants in tiny rowing boats in search of the precious oil to light their lamps and you have to marvel at their courage and endurance in the face of such danger.

This is ultimately a story of survival against incredible odds and one, moreover that is based on real events. The word is that Howard’s film has failed at the box office and it’s certainly not for everyone, but I thought it a remarkable achievement that kept me enthralled from start to finish – a perfect choice for my birthday.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney