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Ron Howard’s movie about the Thai cave rescue isn’t the Hollywood melodrama I expected

How Thirteen Lives avoids the problems of other movies that are ripped from recent headlines.

A man in a caving helmet looks worried.
Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s distressing — and far too simple — to imagine a terrible version of Thirteen Lives.

This imaginary, overly Hollywoodized version, scored to nonstop swoony music, would center on a middle-aged English cave diver, one of the volunteers who flew to northern Thailand in 2018 to help rescue a dozen young soccer players and their coach from the Tham Luang cave. We’d get a great deal of his backstory before we dove into the action. His motivation would be laboriously constructed through some kind of flashback to his own soccer-loving youth. We’d spend several scenes with his estranged wife and child, both of whom he loves but doesn’t see enough. (This would all be heightened to make sure the audience knew the real stakes of the operation.) All of the Thai characters would go unnamed, props supporting the Englishman’s archetypal hero’s journey. And in the end, the ordeal would serve as a valuable character development lesson for the diver, who would have an epiphany during the experience.

Oh, and over the credits, we’d see pictures of the “real” people next to the actors who played them. Of course.

Thank God that’s not the movie Ron Howard made. The cinematic potential of the real-life rescue was apparent from the start. The boys and their coach had barely returned home before an entire swarm of projects were announced, ready to tell of their harrowing rescue. A mere three days after the last of the group were rescued, a made-for-TV documentary called Operation Thai Cave Rescue aired on the Discovery Channel. A scripted Netflix miniseries was announced. Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights director Jon M. Chu was attached to another production. In 2019, the Thai film The Cave was released, directed by Thai-Irish director Tom Waller. Last year’s documentary The Rescue, from the directors of the Oscar-winning Free Solo, nabbed a handful of awards. Even PureFlix, the company that brought us God’s Not Dead and other evangelical content, planned to take a crack at it.

You could have predicted the rush, I guess, since it’s a given that very recent news — cons and scams, disasters, acts of heroism — gets rapidly turned into movies and miniseries. Strike while the headline is hot, the better to capture an audience with a short attention span.

As I noted when writing about Patriots Day — starring Mark Wahlberg as a beat cop trying to foil the very real bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon — there can be a real ick factor in rushing stories to the screen. “By seeing this kind of story in the context of ultimately triumphalist entertainment, we risk seeing every tragic event, every terrorist activity, as just more fodder for big-screen storytelling (as it already is on cable news networks), rather than as part of a larger picture,” I wrote. From the distance of history, we can start to see the bigger picture.

To their immense credit, Howard and writer William Nicholson, working from a story by Nicholson and Don MacPherson, have managed to steer away from those inclinations almost entirely. Thirteen Lives is much more subdued, even restrained. That’s not to say you can’t feel the Hollywoodized version struggling to push through in spots — there are a few too many shots of a statue of a goddess outside the cave — but Thirteen Lives keeps its focus on the massive collaborative effort required to rescue the boys, and their families’ grief and struggle to keep hope alive.

A group of men wearing caving helmets stand near a boy.
Thira Chutikul, Popetorn Soonthornyanakij, Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell, and Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives.
Vince Valitutti/MGM

It helps that the story itself sidesteps a lot of the problems with similar recent-history dramas. All of the trapped boys were rescued; just one man died during the rescue and another shortly after, both clear heroes; the story presents a model for volunteerism, self-sacrifice, and cooperation across borders. The only villain is the rising water in the cave. It’s exactly the kind of news event that translates to film beautifully, and without the ethical wickets that similar tales of trauma and heroism can present.

And Howard knows how to make a tale thrilling even when you already know how the story ends. (This is the director of Apollo 13, after all.) Thirteen Lives requires moving from grand locations like the massive crowd of media, volunteers, and families outside the cave (reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole, but without the cynicism) to the tightest of tight spots, underwater caves so narrow a man’s shoulders can barely fit through. There are local people who gather, supervised by Thai water engineer Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai), to divert water onto rice paddies, helping save lives but destroying their crop. The governor of the area, Narongsak Osottanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit), must navigate communicating with the public while knowing that if anything goes wrong, it’s his fault.

If you’ve seen The Rescue, you know a key part of the story involves elite (but amateur) cave divers who arrive from the UK and Australia to find and retrieve the team, and this is the most Hollywood part of the film. They’re played by Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, and Joel Edgerton, globally recognizable faces who, by virtue of their fame, loom larger than life once they arrive on screen. But their roles are pulled back to what’s necessary, and are often our emotional bridge into the story, since they were first to find the boys in the cave and had to invent the dangerous plan to bring them out.

By the end of the story, the film’s aims are clear: to show what an absolute miracle the rescue was, and to honor the extraordinary cooperation and selflessness of those who came to help. Yes, that’s inspirational. But it also quietly counters a Hollywood history besotted with lone rangers and mavericks. Everyone matters.

None of which, in the end, answers the question that lingered with me after the film ended. Why this story? Why did it capture such broad attention? The average person, half a century ago, might never have known about a dozen junior soccer players and their coach stranded in a Thai cave. The internet and 24-7 media change the context, but in a world full of stories of peril and woe, this one caught our imaginations. Why this one?

Thirteen Lives isn’t aiming to answer this question, but I have a guess. Our world is deeply politicized, by which I mean that everything is seen through a political lens, the fault of some party or another. American observers are tempted to map everything onto our particular partisan bugaboos. And you could probably find a political lens to slap on top of this story.

But Thirteen Lives resists those temptations, mostly because of its urgency, its focus on rescuing children, and, perhaps most mightily, because it taps into something primal and organic about human life on earth. It’s a story of man against nature, one in which nature is almost impossible to control — like a war tale, but with a faceless enemy. The success of the operation is the story of barely managing to outwit a natural world that’s indifferent to whether we live or die.

The team’s ordeal likely has less to do with climate change than bad luck. But constant threats from the natural world are increasingly the experience of people around the world who encounter rising waters, destructive heat waves, harsh wildfires, and other extreme conditions. And that makes me wonder if Thirteen Lives is a glimpse into the kind of movie that could slip past audience defenses and remind us of the great responsibility we bear one another in the face of catastrophe. We live on a planet together, after all. We owe it to one another, and ourselves, to take care of each other.

Thirteen Lives opens in theaters on July 29 and begins streaming on Amazon Prime on August 5.