Ron Howard’s ‘Thirteen Lives’ Recounts Astounding Thai Rescue Mission With Riveting Suspense

Among modern directors, few have captured the sheer tension of trying to beat the odds like Ron Howard. His new film, “Thirteen Lives,” proves he still beats his contemporaries in staging entrapment and then capturing the struggle to break free. It’s based on the true story of a 2018 incident in Thailand, when a team of adolescent soccer players were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave. The story has been told already in an acclaimed documentary, “The Rescue.” Howard’s version should be taken as what it is, well-crafted thriller filmmaking. He makes us feel the pounding rain and scarce oxygen levels. The cast evoke the physical challenges of the task at hand. If the documentaries rivet us with telling the story, a movie like this impresses with how it can make you believe what’s staged on screen. “When I read this script, there were many surprises in terms of the wide variety of heroic selfless acts that were demonstrated that I didn’t know about in addition to, of course, the heroism and the remarkable feat that the divers achieved,” Howard tells Entertainment Voice. “There was this sort of seat of your pants problem solving that was going on while under duress and under pressure. And, I was fascinated by that. So, I tried to lay out sort of what the technical problems were, what the emotional challenges were, where the physical threats were and just keep building scenes around that.”

Howard begins the suspense right from the start as the Wild Boar soccer team, led by coach Ek (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) explore the cave amid rains that quickly turn into a raging monsoon. When the team never emerges, local authorities scramble to try and devise a rescue plan as water levels keep rising. In the U.K., two world-class divers, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), catch sight of the news and decide to go offer their services. Invited by local Governor Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit), the divers face skepticism from the local military types running the SCUBA teams in charge of searching for the boys. They soon prove their worth and after multiple dives, manage to locate the soccer team, who need food, oxygen and more importantly, a way to get out. To help, Rick and John bring in fellow diver and anesthetist Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton) to help devise a plan. The great challenge is in getting what amounts to thirteen kids and their coach, all inexperienced in diving, out through the mazes and waterways of the cave. 

“Ron is a remarkable storyteller and the way he did this movie, it’s like a giant independent film,” Viggo Mortensen tells Entertainment Voice. What makes “Thirteen Lives” an effective thriller is Howard’s meticulous attention to detail. While the story is very recent, Howard’s technique recalls rescue thrillers from the ‘90s when CGI was less dominant. “It wasn’t a special effects movie. We were underwater. We were really doing these things. And, once they realized we could do it and the real Rick Stanton said to Ron, ‘No, I think these guys have learned enough that they can really do this, you know, we’ll supervise all the time and be careful, but they can they safely do it,’ which allowed Ron to see us up close under there,” says Mortensen. Howard’s cinema has been defined by wild odds, from a father offering a bounty to get his son back in “Ransom” to “Rush,” about a race car driver who overcomes physical pain to do what he loves. “Thirteen Lives” has much in common with what remains Howard’s best film, 1995’s “Apollo 13,” based on the true story of an astronaut crew who were nearly marooned in space when their oxygen tanks exploded. Here he returns to the same terrain of individuals having to combine speed, brains and strength to resolve a complicated crisis. Not much exposition is given to Rick and John, which is fine considering this is not a biography of the men. The focus is entirely on how they were involved in this particular situation. 

Although this story has been told before as a documentary, most audiences will probably discover it as a movie. On that level, Howard makes it brutally clear how high the stakes were. Mortensen and Farrell reportedly had to receive scuba certification and it shows in sequences that feel absolutely authentic. The traversing of small spaces underwater, the feeling of rocks shearing against your arms, or the urgency of conserving oxygen are brought to life with real vividness. “They’re people. They’re people making decisions.  And in this case, a lot of courageous people and volunteers.  You know, that was just one other feature,” says Howard. “You know, it’s one thing to see highly trained individuals doing the thing they’re paid to do.  Rick Stanton was a firefighter. A story about him on the job going and doing a rescue is one kind of a thing. It’s another thing when Rick Stanton is an expert cave diver, but this is his hobby and he agrees to take this period of time in his life, putting himself at risk physically, emotionally, and everything else as an act of volunteerism.” The rescuers’ base of operations is inside a grand, leaking cavern that could itself flood at any moment. Outside, Thai workers desperately try to build pipelines to divert the water that never ceases to pour. 

The screenplay by William Nicholson of “Gladiator” does have a few cliché weak spots. There’s a worried mom, played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul, who mostly just stands around in the rain demanding the rescuers do more. And because Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell are the marquee names, they get the most attention while the writing can fall into the typical trap of showing how those underdeveloped third worlders can be so stubborn and refuse good advice. Such are leftovers from a cinema more common in Howard’s early days. But the rest of “Thirteen Lives” is simply fascinating and riveting. “I mean, if this was a movie that was made 20 or 30 years ago or by another kind of director, all the Thai characters would be speaking English and it would be mainly about the westerners and some heroic thing. This was not that,” says Mortensen. “The Thai actors are actually speaking Thai.”  

“Well, audiences are more and more sophisticated all the time thanks in a large part to streaming,” says Howard about the wider room for authentic cultural representation in films. “But also it’s just the evolution of it. I’ve seen it my entire career. Audiences are becoming more discerning, they’re smarter.  And, you know, this is an expectation now. And, you know, I don’t think people want things to be sort of homogenized and simplified. I think in fact a story like this, you know, they want what’s granular and they want it to feel authentic and true.” The structure of the film does point to the potential of a thriller still having an old-school, practical feel but with the kind of documentary realism in exploring another country sorely lacking over the years. 

Mortensen and Farrell do manage to add some other layers to their roles. Farrell’s John is the more open of the two men while Mortensen’s Rick is more stern, focused and blunt. He’s the one who is willing to tell the Thai authorities the kids will most likely die and tries to keep John from giving the children any false hopes when they do find them. Sahajak Boonthanakit’s governor might be seen as another disaster movie cliché, but who can doubt this is how bureaucrats have acted during a crisis? As we have seen recently with the pandemic and other catastrophes, politicians, even sincere ones, have to balance public image and hard, momentous decisions. Howard also gives good space to the Thai Navy SEALS who participated in the rescue operations, giving them a convincingly rugged, do or die attitude. Different personalities had to come together to carry out this mission and Howard balances the chaotic clashes and compromises that go on in such moments. “We went there and got prepared and all of us, you know, actors who are playing these divers, we just watched them very carefully,” says Mortensen. “You know, you wanna get it right, but you also wanna survive the shoot (laughs). So, it’s like we were very, very attentive to everything they did.” 

Visually this also marks a return for Howard to his more measured, precise style. Lately his movies had been playing with more colorful, saturated tones with breakneck editing. Here he works with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who has lensed films like “Suspiria” and “Call Me by Your Name,” to capture the intimacy of what’s going on. Hand-held shots inside the cave create an overpowering claustrophobia while outside, we see the scale of the natural world these men are going up against. Much of “Thirteen Lives” doesn’t even look like a typical American disaster thriller but more like a rugged piece of Asian cinema. The plan the divers come up with, involving anesthetizing the soccer players to try and bring them out, only quickens our heart rate because of a new layer of challenges. A great cast gives it all empathy even if we’re distracted by the crisis at hand. As a filmmaker, it can’t be denied Howard knows how to generate genuine suspense, taken from pure human experience and not comic books. “It wasn’t just the divers volunteering, it was thousands,” says Howard. “Remarkable efforts were made there. So, I was just fascinated by the tapestry of the volunteerism, intercultural interaction, and the courage.”

Thirteen Lives” releases July 29 in select theaters and begins streaming Aug. 5 on Amazon Prime Video.