Here is Ron Howard’s decent retelling of an amazing true-life story: the Tham Luang cave rescue in northern Thailand in 2018, when international volunteers and Thai Navy Seals battled to rescue 12 teenage boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave. Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson have the tricky job of following last year’s excellent documentary on this subject, The Rescue, by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
Just as with Howard’s other near-disaster-movie Apollo 13, we have the unlucky number right up there in the title. When the 13 were stranded in the cave, caught unawares by the torrential downpour, a colossal mission got under way which involved thousands of volunteers frantically pumping, draining and diverting the rainwater so that they wouldn’t drown, while the authorities tried to think what to do.
Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, two dedicated amateur cave divers from Britain who were brought over to Thailand at the prompting of resident British national and experienced diver Vern Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald). It was Volanthen and Stanton who first found the boys alive. But how to get them out? Even with scuba gear and guidance, the boys couldn’t be relied on to swim out without panicking and drowning in the darkness. So Stanton suggested bringing over another diver, Australian anaesthesiologist Richard “Harry” Harris (Joel Edgerton), who has the terrifying job of putting each boy under sedation and floating their sleeping form through the narrow cave tunnels, periodically topping up the dose, with death an ever-present danger for rescuer and rescued. Sahajak Boonthanakit plays Governor Narongsak who calmly gives the go-ahead for the foreigners’ bold plan, tacitly agreeing to let them have the praise in the event of success, but resolving to take the blame if things went wrong.
In human terms, this is a straightforward film, unlike the story of the trapped Chilean miners in 2010, who were all adults with complex backstories. Howard conveys the claustrophobia and danger of the cave system – although, for a non-caver like me, the question of why anyone should want to cave dive in the first place remains unanswered. He finesses the (unavoidable) problem of white-saviour-ism by making the performances as unassuming and un-Hollywood as possible: Mortensen, Farrell and Edgerton all go into ordinary-bloke mode. The only real Hollywood moment comes when British diver Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) almost panics and loses his nerve, a bit like Ives in The Great Escape.
Well, there is another problem which Ron Howard clearly found insoluble, and so he avoids it, just as Chin and Vasarhelyi did in their film. The blowhard plutocrat Elon Musk notoriously disgraced himself during the rescue by calling Unsworth a “pedo” for rejecting his preposterous and egocentric offer of a submarine for the rescue – it was clearly unsuitable, being obviously too big and un-manoeuvrable. The film doesn’t mention any of this, and maybe ignoring Musk’s grotesque outburst is the only way to go. This event, tonally jarring, is an example of how real life sometimes just won’t fit into the template: it’s what you leave out when you’re printing the legend.
• Thirteen Lives is released on 29 July in the US and UK, and on 5 August on Prime Video.