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edge staff writer


Docudrama ‘Thirteen Lives’ dives deep

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Dramatizing real-life events is always a complicated business. On the one hand, you want to stay true to the actual story as it happened. On the other, some leeway needs to be allowed for dramatic license. There are variations on this theme – “based on a true story,” “inspired by true events,” etc. – but while the facts are important, the story usually wins out.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad thing – we’ve gotten some incredible films based on real happenings – so much as to acknowledge that sometimes the narrative supersedes the truth.

“Thirteen Lives,” currently available on Amazon Prime, is one such docudrama. It tells the story of the Tham Luang cave rescue in Thailand in 2018, a story that unfolded in the eyes of the world over the course of 18 days. The tale, in which a consortium of people from all over came together in an effort to rescue 12 young men and their soccer coach after they became trapped in the cave, is a harrowing one. Naturally, someone made a movie about it.

That said, you’re operating on something of a different level when that someone is Ron Howard.

Howard, working from a script penned by William Nicholson, has given the story the cinematic treatment, focusing largely on the people who worked tirelessly over the course of many days in an effort to rescue those kids. It’s an interesting move – particularly since it puts so much emphasis on the roles played by outsiders (specifically, English-speaking outsiders) – but one that makes narrative sense. It’s a taut, tense drama, one whose tension is in no way alleviated by the fact that we know how it all turns out.

A youth soccer team finishes practice one afternoon in the Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand. One of their number has a birthday party that evening, but the group decides to go on an adventure. And so, with their coach in tow, they make their way to the Tham Luang cave to do a little exploring. However, disaster strikes when an unexpectedly heavy rain causes the cave to partially flood, trapping all 13 inside.

Rising water levels and unpredictable currents rendered rescue efforts ineffective. For days, nothing can be done to locate them. No contact was made, despite the best efforts of all involved. As news spread, international interest began to rise.

The story comes to the attention of John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), a British man with years of experience as a cave rescue diver. Volanthen in turn reaches out to fellow diver Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen). The two make their way to Thailand where, as they are among the best in the world at what they do, they join the effort.

Naval divers have managed to work their way through part of the submerged system, but their skill sets don’t translate to cave diving. John and Rick are able to work their way deeper into the cave, navigating the treacherous geography, eventually discovering – much to their surprise – that even after two weeks of being trapped, all 13 are alive and in relatively good shape.

However, it’s clear that finding a way to bring them out will be complicated – there’s real concern that panic will set in, leading to the possible death of not just the rescued, but the rescuer. Still, the clock is ticking – monsoon season looms – and so they must come up with some sort of plan. They bring in another associate – doctor and fellow diver Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton) – and ask his help in pulling off an audacious and risky plan. It’s a one in a million shot, but it’s all they’ve got.

Most of us know the big details of this story – one couldn’t engage with the news in July of 2018 and not hear about it – so delving deeper into the plot feels unnecessary. You probably know how it turned out.

And yet, the drama inherent to “Thirteen Lives” isn’t undermined by that foreknowledge. In fact, it almost adds to the tension, as counterintuitive as it might sound. As compelling as the story was in the moment, it still existed in the abstract – we were told because we couldn’t be shown. Here, Howard and company show us what happened. They show us the emotional ebbs and flows as these 13 lives hang in the balance. And that makes all the difference.

Now, Ron Howard isn’t a particularly showy director. He tends toward the workmanlike and this film is no exception. But this story doesn’t require flash. For this to work, you need two things – one relatively easy, one not so much. You need performances that result in compelling characters; that’s the easy one and Howard gets solid work from his cast.

The tough one? Finding ways to effectively evoke the claustrophobic nature of the setting. These caves are buried hundreds of meters beneath a mountain, often involving passages just large enough for a person to crawl through … and now they’re underwater. Some of these sequences – murky and dark, often lit by a single headlamp – are a real struggle to watch, fully capturing the tightness of this confined space.

Two things – and Howard nails them both.

The performances – particularly those given by Mortensen, Farrell and Edgerton – are uniformly good. Much of the film revolves around their participation in the rescue effort. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it does mean that we don’t get as much narrative devoted to those who are trapped or those loved ones on the outside hoping against hope. What we do get is strong – as is what we see from the various soldiers and functionaries also working the rescue effort – but there’s not as much of it as we might have liked.

“Thirteen Lives” is something of a return to form for Howard, whose last decade has consisted mostly of documentaries and a couple of less-than-stellar IP sequels. With this film, he’s able to return to his storytelling roots, bringing forth the tension of a moment in time that captured the world’s attention. It is solid dramatic filmmaking, not spectacular, but extremely effective, giving a true story a powerful cinematic treatment.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 08 August 2022 15:05


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