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Thirteen Lives movie review: Ron Howard’s outstanding Oscar contender is one of the best films of the year

There is a thin line that every fact-based movie needs to walk. It needs to decide, for instance, whether to assume that the viewer is aware of the real-life story behind it, or if they are familiar with only the highlights. Thirteen Lives, the new Ron Howard film based on the (rather recent) Thai cave rescue operation, boldly behaves like you know nothing. And this is its competitive advantage.

The incident was widely covered in the media — two films have already been made about it — and you’d imagine that you know the broad strokes of the story, if not every minute detail. In 2018, 12 boys and their football coach went adventuring in a cave, but were trapped inside after heavy rainfall flooded the labyrinthine underground system. The rescue operation, which was performed by Thai authorities in collaboration with several independent international divers, made global news and lasted over two weeks.

Howard’s film — easily one of his best — offers not only a thrilling, expansive account of the mission, but also presents genuinely surprising new details that, on one occasion especially, were kept deliberately under wraps for ethical reasons. This isn’t strictly true — the terrific documentary The Rescue covered most bases — but it gives Thirteen Lives an added layer of sincerity that is very vital in human dramas such as this.

The movie finds Howard returning to his roots, in a way. Think of it as a cross between Apollo 13 and In the Heart of the Sea — both stories about human survival against all odds. Perhaps it is because of a shift in audience sensibilities or an example of Howard’s own evolution as a director, but Thirteen Lives is the antithesis of rousing Hollywood survival epics. For one, Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is muted to the point of being indistinguishable from the excellent sound design. It whooshes and clangs in synchronicity with the noise of gushing water, and of metal on rocks. Forget emotionally manipulating the audience, it wants to scare us.

This is some real white-knuckle stuff, even though most people would probably know how the story ends. Collaborating for the first time with renowned Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria), Howard’s film is at once sprawling — the exterior sequences feel positively lush — and claustrophobic when the rescue operation begins in earnest. Together with screenwriter William Nicholson, Howard is able to craft an unusually immersive experience by utilising the Top Gun: Maverick approach to writing. By the time the rescue actually begins, for instance, the game-plan has been repeated so often, and the geography of the area defined so well, you know exactly where the obstacles are, and more importantly, where the salvation lies.

Often, it feels like you’re trapped underwater with the divers, the most prominent of whom are played by Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman. But despite my concerns going into the film, Thirteen Lives doesn’t come across as a White Saviour narrative. Part of the reason behind this is the stripped-back tone, but a bigger reason is that Howard goes out of his way to highlight the contribution of the locals.

There is a moving subplot about nearby farmers who allowed the authorities to flood their land with the water that was being pumped out of the caves, and a deeply engaging parallel operation where a bunch of Thai people meticulously covered sinkholes at the top of the mountain, to stop rain water from further flooding the caves. Howard also keeps highlighting the spirituality that is so intrinsic to Thai culture — there are brief cutaways to monks praying for the boys’ survival, and a quick story about the spiritual relevance of the mountain itself. This offers a nice contrast to the no-nonsense, scientific mentality of the divers. Mortensen’s character, in particular, is vocally dismissive of superstition, and routinely punctures the barest hint of hope with reality checks.

Even if the boys are found, he says, how in the world can they be expected to swim underwater for nearly three hours? Concerns such as this inspire him to summon Edgerton’s character, who arrives on the scene midway through the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime for a very specific reason. I will not spoil it here.

Thirteen Lives is the kind of film where every beat, every department, every moving part comes together to serve the story. It has the propulsive narrative thrust of The Martian, but also the gritty realism of Captain Phillips. Incidentally, there’s a quick scene right at the end in which the five main divers congregate in a nondescript room immediately after the operation. Bateman delivers a wordless performance so moving that it almost makes you feel ashamed at yourself for missing the usual Hollywood razzle-dazzle.

This is one of the finest films of the year. Not a soul would have bet on the boys — they were doomed — but you can safely put money on Thirteen Lives becoming a major Oscar contender come awards season.

Thirteen Lives
Director – Ron Howard
Cast – Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Vithaya Pansringarm
Rating – 4.5/5

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