An extraordinary story of nerve-wracking heroism gets an appealingly straightforward, propulsive retelling in Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives,” which dutifully dramatizes the risky 2018 operation that saved a dozen boys and their soccer coach from the deepest recesses of the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand.
As real-life cases of ticking-clock peril go, this one had everyone by the heart and throat as it unfolded, a monsoon season misadventure that spurred a remarkable coalition, locally and globally, of steadfast, industrious and ingenious souls: sacrificing farmers, rain diverters, Thai Navy SEALS and cave divers. Howard, comfortable with canvases big and small, knows from this kind of all-hands-on-deck story — its dramatic contours and gritty details — having made one of the great averting-disaster movies with “Apollo 13.”
What’s trickier, however, about getting “Thirteen Lives” right is that a less conscientious filmmaker might have foregrounded a white-savior chronicle, considering the significant technical expertise of British divers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Australian anesthetist Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), whose extraction method was, literally and figuratively, a shot in the dark.
The life-affirming reality of what transpired is, of course, a bigger narrative, and thankfully, Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson understand that. They’ve smartly crafted a chronologically precise, wide-view version emphasizing the community of problem-solvers on hand — including a pressured Gov. Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit), groundwater engineer Thanet Natisr (Nophand Boonyai), intrepid soldier Saman (Weir Sukollawat Kanarot), and literally thousands of helpers — whose efforts lay the groundwork for the success of a band of hobbyist explorers who happened to be white male foreigners.
There’s a diversity of temperament too, when you factor in the nicked pride of Thai Navy SEAL leader Capt. Arnont Sureewong (Tui Thiraphat Sajakul) who must widen his notion of teamwork, and Mortensen’s convincing portrayal of a cultural outsider whose irritableness when dealing with others is never terribly far from the surface. (Are we surprised a dude who chooses exploring remote, cramped underwater worlds as a leisure pursuit might prefer solitude to socializing?)
Howard’s version of this incredible story is also having to compete with the fact that it’s not the only one made by an Oscar-winning filmmaker. “Thirteen Lives” follows last year’s documentary “The Rescue,” from “Free Solo” directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, which was an illuminating, pulse-pounding knockout, built around key players’ riveting first-person accounts (except, due to rights issues, that of the kids).
Invariably, the carefully naturalistic approach that “Thirteen Lives” takes keeps it from being as pointedly, emotionally walloping as “The Rescue.” But what Howard does with his solid cast, steady pacing and seamless mix of location verisimilitude and Molly Hughes’ cave-recreated production design is still plenty powerful whether you’re familiar with the operation’s details or not: he drops us right into a charged, time-sensitive atmosphere of hope and focus, and lets the unvarnished tension of a mission with no room for error play across everyone’s faces as the story propels forward. On that visceral level too, it’s possibly the wettest movie in recent memory, from first torrential downpour to last, with cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s claustrophobic, lamplit cave tunnel sequences suitably thick with dank and darkness.
Howard may never put his thumb on the scale to juice the emotions, but affecting moments of vulnerability still pierce the selflessness: the sense of guilt the boys’ coach touchingly expresses, one mother’s fear that her family’s statelessness will be an issue and the reasonable worry across all the main players — especially when the daring rescue is set in motion — that’s like a hot potato nobody wants to hold for too long.
There’s even room for subtle spirituality in how the specifics of the boys’ passage to safety relates to the mythical sleeping princess shown being prayed to by locals and believed to hold power over the mountain. “Thirteen Lives” may be a vivid rescue procedural first and foremost, but it’s also a testament to the guardian spirit possible in any of us.
In English and Thai with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes
Rated: PG-13, for some strong language and unsettling images
Playing: Starts July 29, AMC The Grove; available Aug. 5 on Amazon Prime Video
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