Ron Howard’s ‘Thirteen Lives’ Masterfully Captures Heroic Thai Cave Rescue


Hollywood can be so divisive these days that it’s hard to believe there was once a time when it put out movies that were meant to actually unite the audience – in fear, in heartbreak, in inspiration. These were films that recognized our shared humanity, regardless of our political, religious, or racial differences. Certain directors were counted on to unify audiences who were eager to engage with the characters and stories on the screen. These directors would put their artistry before their personal agendas. Even when telling overtly political stories, these filmmakers would instinctively find a core theme that ran even deeper than any of-the-moment political messaging.

Unfortunately, many of these directors have abandoned devotion to their artistry to prioritize pandering to their side of the political aisle. Undoubtedly, they are sincere in their desire to use these stories to make these points, but, as Milton Friedman once said, “sincerity is a much-overrated virtue”. Despite their best intentions, in the end, their films suffered due to their political blinders. Thankfully, there are still a handful of directors whose creative instincts are still preserved, leading them to make movies that speak to something common within all of us. One such director is Ron Howard, whose filmography reads like a list of reliable, well-made films that are emotionally impactful without sacrificing intellectual complexity. His films include such sturdy classics as “Parenthood,” “Backdraft,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Paper,” “Cinderella Man,” “Frost/Nixon,” and “Rush,” just to name a few. 

Howard’s 1995 drama “Apollo 13” remains his greatest achievement. The true story of the successful rescue of three astronauts trapped in a crippled space shuttle is a space travel masterpiece. He never lets the audience forget that — while the rescue may have been inspiring — it required a tremendous amount of tedious troubleshooting to make it happen. The film is a tribute to human ingenuity and shared commitment. 

His latest film, “Thirteen Lives”, flows from the same vein as “Apollo 13” and it is all the better for it. Based on the 2018 true story of the Thailand boys soccer team trapped in a flooded cave, this film attempts to depict all the different elements of the boys’ rescue, which was planned and carried out by British divers and Thai Navy Seals, and assisted by scientists, farmers, soldiers, and politicians. The details are so complicated that it’s a marvel that the audience has any idea what is going on at all, but Howard and his writers have laid out the multiple problems and their solutions in a way that is clear and concise. Though these details are made easy to understand, we are still able to appreciate just how horrendous this rescue will be.

A film like this requires tremendous patience, both from the filmmaker and the viewer, as the rescue is so meticulous. Far from being a slambang action film, it takes the divers seven hours of navigating treacherous, claustrophobic caverns just to reach the kids. Getting the kids back out is an even more complicated matter. Meanwhile, the waters keep rising and locals work their hardest to divert the waters from the cave, destroying nearby crops (a reminder that this catastrophe didn’t just affect the boys and their families). 

To outline these complicated plans, Howard brings in such reliable actors as Viggo Mortensen, and Colin Farrell as the expert divers, each of whom deal with the difficult circumstances in their own way. Farrell’s character, John Volanthen, himself a father, sees his young son in the face of each trapped boy, creating an even deeper sense of urgency. Mortensen’s character, Rick Stanton, meanwhile, chooses to keep himself at arm’s length, adopting a fatalistic attitude, just in case things don’t go well. These characters feel lived-in and relatable. Attempting to keep the film grounded, Howard and his actors avoid scenes of melodrama, choosing instead to allow the audience to imbue the situation with their own emotions. 

If you know the story, none of these elements will be particularly surprising to you. However, as in most films based on true stories, knowing the details and seeing them are two very different things. Howard and his cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, manage to transport the audience right into the middle of the action, even if we don’t want to be. These caves would be claustrophobic in even the best conditions. Submerged in water, they’re a living nightmare, and Howard allows the characters — and the audience — to really contemplate the horrendous details of the experience.

The difficulty of the dive not only draws the viewer in, but serves to make the eventual rescue all the more inspiring. Thousands of people from several different countries stepped away from their own lives — and in some cases, actually put their lives on the line — to try to help thirteen strangers. It was an arduous endeavor, but those people thought it was worth it.

It’s the kind of film that, especially in the midst of such dark times as these, can remind us that there are some things that can bring us all together, if we let them. “Thirteen Lives” explores the best of what humanity has to offer and, in the process, becomes a shining example of what mainstream Hollywood filmmaking can be.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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