Ron Howard has directed a lot of movies. One of the best is “Apollo 13″ (1995), about the touch-and-go return of the three astronauts on that failed moon mission. His latest, “Thirteen Lives,” about the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in Thailand, shares more than a titular number with the earlier film. It, too, dramatizes a celebrated real-life rescue effort — only that one took place deep within the Earth, an underground cavern, rather than far above it.
“Thirteen Lives,” which starts streaming Friday on Amazon Prime, isn’t as good as the earlier movie. Depending on how much you like Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, who play two of the rescuers, you may be better off watching “The Rescue,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s highly regarded documentary from last year.
In fact, “Thirteen Lives” is fairly pedestrian. Clearly, Howard wants to keep things low key out of respect for the subject. As the title reminds us, actual lives were at stake. Howard frequently superimposes text on the screen: maps, dates, oxygen levels, distances, time elapsed. It’s in keeping with the general downplaying of emotion. Taking a docu-drama approach is to Howard’s credit.
Just as clearly, the film is lower key than he necessarily intends. Low-key filmmaking can still be inspired filmmaking, but inspired filmmaking “Thirteen Lives” is not. Even so, the movie can be quite affecting. Anyone watching it who doesn’t get the occasional lump in their throat may want to check on the whereabouts of their throat.
Few events capture the extended attention of pretty much the entire world. The effort to rescue 12 Thai youth soccer players and their coach who were trapped underground for 18 days definitely qualifies. Even fewer such events end happily, as the rescue did. That’s another thing “Thirteen Lives” shares with “Apollo 13″: an against-all-odds Hollywood ending that really did happen.
“Thirteen Lives” is very good at showing just how horrifyingly high those odds were. Players and coach had stopped by the caves, a popular local attraction, on their way from practice to a birthday party. A torrent of rain produced a flash flood that left them stranded. Only divers could get to them, and those divers had to travel 2½ miles from the cave mouth to reach them. It took six hours to get there, negotiating tricky currents and many dangerously narrow passages. Tight squeezes are that much tighter for someone wearing scuba gear. (”Thirteen Lives” is not for anyone even faintly claustrophobic.) All that was assuming coach and players could be found. How many, if any, were still alive?
Thai SEALs are brought in. Not trained for cave diving, they’re unable to reach the chamber where the boys and their coach are believed to be. (The overall rescue effort resulted in two deaths; both men were SEALs.) Several divers experienced in cave rescues are brought in. “The old men,” the SEALs call them. They’re all Western, and Howard doesn’t ignore the professional tensions between them and the SEALs. Neither does he belabor them. Unavoidably, there’s a post-imperial tinge to the Westerners’ involvement. This is one area where the documentary aspect gives Howard a pass.
Chief among the divers are Rick Stanton (Mortensen), John Volanthen (Farrell), and Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton). Stanton is gruff and given to tersely just-get-the-job-done statements like “I have zero interest in dying” and “We do what we came to do: Go into that cave.” Mortensen’s underplaying the character’s underplaying, so to speak, keeps Stanton from seeming a mite Eastwoodian.
It’s Stanton who proposes the seemingly reckless action that will enable the rescue. “Rick, what are you thinking?” Volanthen asks him. “Just a crazy idea,” he replies. “Crazy’s better than nothing. Tell me.” (It’s amusing to hear them, an American and Irishman, do English accents.) Volanthen has a sweetness to him that Stanton most definitely lacks. Farrell may be even better than Mortensen. His character evinces a slight bewilderment that makes his heroism all the more heroic.
We see the trapped boys and their coach only when divers are in the cavern. This makes sense in practical terms, since otherwise there is no light there. It also makes sense dramatically — emotionally might be a more accurate word — since to see their fear and hunger and desperation would be unbearable (not that they failed to bear it, of course). The heart of the movie is the discussions among the divers and, even more, the scenes in the caves. Simply as a technical achievement, the underground and underwater filming is highly impressive.
But Howard makes sure to vary things. He also shows the mounting anxiety of the players’ families and the media scrum outside the cave mouth. In a notably moving scene, local farmers are asked to agree to their fields being flooded. This might (might) reduce water levels underground. It would certainly ruin their crops. They unhesitatingly agree. Most of those lump-in-the-throat moments take place in the caves. Not all of them, though.
Directed by Ron Howard. Written by William Nicholson and Don MacPherson. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton. Streaming on Amazon Prime. 147 minutes. PG-13 (strong language, unsettling images). In English and Thai, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.