Thirteen Lives is one of those inspiring movies that you can’t really find much fault with (unless you’re claustrophobic). It’s based on a true story that screamed “miracle movie” from the instant the story played out on international television in 2018. Then, it got Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Rebuilding Paradise, We Feed People) onboard as director, so you could rest assured the vibe would be compelling, authentic and uplifting. If you like documentaries and dramas inspired by actual events, it’s worth diving into Thirteen Lives. The film runs nearly two and a half hours but as you become immersed in the story (and the watery cave), time pretty much stands still. Most people (who weren’t living under a rock in 2018) know how the story ends (yay!). What the movie hangs its dramatic hat on is all the little details we didn’t know about at the time or weren’t quite captured in last year’s excellent, Oscar-nominated documentary The Rescue (which you should see before or after the dramatized version).
Thirteen Lives recounts the global effort that took place in the summer of 2018 to rescue a dozen youth soccer players and their coach from a dark, twisty, flooded underground cave in Thailand. The first miracle was finding them alive after nine days–huddled on a ledge, miles from the entrance. The second miracle was getting them all out, more than a week later. Thousands of people contributed to the rescue effort, with three men in particular emerging as somewhat unconventional heroes: British rescue divers Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), and Australian diver/physician Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton). Dr. Harris warily agreed to a medical “Hail Mary” when rescuers–including the Thai Navy SEALs– ran out of viable options for getting the soccer team out of the cave before another torrential downpour. Other heroes included a local engineer and the townspeople who worked tirelessly and sacrificed their crops to help divert more rainwater from seeping into the caves from above ground. It really did take a village to save the boys.
Unlike the 2015 drama The 33 about the rescue of miners trapped underground in Chile, Thirteen Lives does not spend much time with the boys and their coach. Apparently, that part of the story will be captured in a limited series premiering on Netflix in the fall. Thirteen Lives focuses primarily on the rescue operation and the perspective of those conducting it. The result is a film with a bit less emotional heft than I expected going in. Still, it’s a fascinating story with a happy ending, and the film serves as a pleasant reminder of what can be accomplished with a torrent of faith, luck, ingenuity, humanity and teamwork.
I saw the film in IMAX which made it all the more immersive. It has a limited run in select theaters and launches globally on Amazon Prime on August 5.