There is a fine line every fact-based movie needs to walk. He must decide, for example, whether he assumes the viewer is familiar with the real-life story behind it, or whether he is only aware of the highlights. Thirteen Leaves, Ron Howard’s new movie based on a (rather modern) Thai cave rescue, boldly act like you don’t know anything. This is its competitive advantage.
The incident was covered extensively in the media – two films have already been made about it – and you imagine you know the outlines of the story, if not all the minute details. In 2018, 12 boys and their soccer coach went on an adventure in a cave, but were trapped inside after torrential rain inundated the underground maze system. The rescue operation, which was conducted by the Thai authorities in cooperation with several independent international divers, made world news and lasted more than two weeks.
Howard’s film – one of his best – not only offers a suspenseful and expansive narrative of the mission, but also truly surprising new details which, on one occasion in particular, have been deliberately concealed for moral reasons. That’s not quite right – the fantastic documentary The Rescue covered most of the bases – but it does give Thirteen Lives an extra layer of fidelity which is so vital in human dramas like this.
The film finds Howard somehow going back to his roots. Think of it as a cross between Apollo 13 and In the Heart of the Sea – both stories about human survival against all odds. Maybe it’s due to a shift in audience sensibilities or an example of Howard’s own evolution as a director, but Thirteen Lives is the antithesis of Hollywood’s epic survival thriller. First, Benjamin Wallfisch’s pitch is so muted that it’s almost indistinguishable from the excellent sound design. It sways and chimes in sync with the noise of flowing water and metal on the rocks. Forget about emotionally manipulating the audience, he wants to scare us.
These are some of the real things, although most people probably know how the story ends. Collaborating for the first time with acclaimed Thai cinematographer Sayombo Mukdebrom (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria), Howard’s film is simultaneously sprawling—the outside sequences look positively gorgeous—and frightened when the rescue begins in earnest. Together with screenwriter William Nicholson, Howard is able to craft an extraordinarily immersive experience through the use of Top Gun: Maverick writing approach. By the time the rescue operation actually begins, for example, the game plan has been repeated a lot, and the geography of the territory is well defined, you know exactly where the obstacles are, and most importantly, where the salvation lies.
Oftentimes, you feel like you are trapped underwater with divers, who play the most notable Viggo MortensenColin Farrell, Joel Edgerton and Tom Bateman. But despite my apprehensions about going into the movie, Thirteen Lives doesn’t sound like a white savior’s story. Part of the reason behind this is the jagged tone, but the biggest reason is that Howard does his best to highlight the contribution of the locals.
There is an animated sub-chart about nearby farmers who allowed the authorities to flood their lands with water pumped from the caves, and a very attractive parallel process where a group of Thais meticulously covered the sewers at the top of the mountain, to prevent rainwater from flooding the caves. Howard also continues to highlight the spirituality ingrained in Thai culture – there are shortcuts to monks praying for the survival of the boys, and a quick story about the spiritual significance of the mountain itself. This offers a nice contrast with the realistic, scientific mindset of divers. Mortensen’s character, in particular, vehemently rejects superstition, routinely puncturing the slightest hint of hope through reality tests.
Even if the boys are found, he says, how can they be expected to swim underwater for about three hours? Such concerns inspire him to summon the character of Edgerton, who arrives on the scene halfway during the film’s two-and-a-half-hour run for a very specific reason. I won’t spoil it here.
Thirteen Lives is the kind of movie where every beat, every section, and every moving part come together to serve the story. It has the narrative impulse of Mars, but also the gritty realism of Captain Phillips. Incidentally, there’s a quick scene at the end where the five main divers congregate in a nondescript room right after the operation. Bateman delivers a silent performance so poignant that you almost feel ashamed of yourself for missing out on the usual Hollywood glamor.
This is one of the best movies of the year. You wouldn’t bet any soul on the boys – they were doomed – but you could safely put money on Thirteen Lives to become a major contender for the Oscars.
Director – Ron Howard
spit – Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Vitaya Bansingarm
evaluation – 4.5 / 5