Thirteen Lives: Depths of Despair, by Tyler Smith
In 1995, Ron Howard directed Apollo 13, the story of three astronauts trapped in a damaged space shuttle and the efforts of those back on Earth to rescue them. It was an amazing directorial achievement. The film’s eye for technical detail in no way hampered the tension and eventual inspiration of the story itself. Years later, it seems that Ron Howard is still the go-to director for this balancing act, as his new film Thirteen Lives manages to be inspirational without being overly sentimental and technical without being cold. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but he does so with ease.
Based on the true story of a kids’ soccer team in Thailand trapped in a flooding cave, Thirteen Lives shows us the meticulous planning that went into the rescue operation, while still keeping its eye firmly on the human side of the story. Though the story is told mostly through the eyes of two British divers (played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Ferrell), the rescue was made possible through the combined efforts of politicians, soldiers, and scientists. Some were local, while others flew across the world to lend a hand. Some put their lives at risk by diving into the cave while others risked their livelihoods, like the farmers who agreed to let their crops be flooded by water diverted from the cave.
While showing so many different elements of the rescue, it’s important to keep things relatable, lest the film begin to feel like a retrospective documentary; informative, but distant. Howard and his cast do this in the quiet moments, as the characters contemplate how best to pull this rescue off, while silently wondering if it even can be. The silent glances shared between the would-be rescuers speak volumes about their justified worry that this whole effort will end with the bodies of children being brought out of the cave one by one, all in front of an armada of reporters and cameras. Only one character (Mortensen) dares to voice his concern, but it doesn’t mean he has given up hope. In fact, it is his idea to sedate the boys for the seven-hour underwater journey to safety (a plan that falls firmly into the “so crazy it just might work” category).
Howard also finds time to expand the story to include the peripheral elements, like the recently-fired governor told to stay at his post so that the government has someone to blame if things go wrong. We meet the water specialist from Chicago who works tirelessly to keep the floods from rising in the cave. And, of course, the parents of the boys, who can only stand by and watch as the rescue drags on and on.
There are several thrilling scenes of our divers slowly working their way through the narrow cave passageways; some so small that they can barely fit through. These areas of the cave would be difficult to navigate in the best of circumstances, but are truly treacherous when submerged. In these scenes, Howard creates a claustrophobic environment that will leave the audience breathless, but can only hint at the sheer terror that the rescuers must have experienced. As with Apollo 13, Howard is so fully able to put us in the mindset of those involved, we actually forget that we already know the outcome of the story.
In the end, Thirteen Lives is a stressful, engrossing, inspiring film whose eye may be towards procedure, but whose soul is rooted firmly in its humanity. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s sense of desperation, not merely because of Howard’s expert handling of the story, but because of the larger considerations. With so many stories – both global and national – that end in tragedy, it does us all good to hear about that occasional catastrophe that ends well, and not just by accident, but because thousands of strangers banded together to make sure that lives were saved, loved ones were reunited, and, for the briefest of moments, the world was a better place. We need stories like that. The Thai soccer team’s rescue is that story, and Ron Howard brings it wonderfully, inspirationally to life.