I wasn’t planning to review Thirteen Lives, Ron Howard’s dramatization of the 2018 Thai Cave Rescue. After all, I had already reviewed 3 other films covering the story, and this isn’t really a soccer movie. In fact, wikipedia has placed it in the genre of “biographical survival film”. But I noticed that search engines were finding my website because of my review of 13 Lost (2020), so I thought I should give readers a chance to know how I compare this film to the other versions.
My judgment is this: if you want the facts with a ton of drama, The Rescue (2021) is superior to this film and the only rendition you need to watch. Howard’s fictional version is your choice if you want a visceral feeling for what it might have been like to be in the cave or in the rescue camp.
Because it’s Ron Howard, the number of reviews of his film is bonkers. Also because it’s Ron Howard, most of the reviews use words like spell-binding, stunning, cinematically claustrophobic, and gripping. On the other hand, those reviewers who have seen The Rescue are a little less sanguine and lean more towards lauding the technical achievements, the acting, or the cultural authenticity of Thirteen Lives.
With an up front $55M commitment, the scale of Howard’s production is meant to impress. Filmed in Australia and Thailand, Howard duplicates the flooded network of caves and the mass of humanity that came together in the rescue: outfitted extras depicting maybe a thousand villagers, rescuers, military, officials, volunteers, and journalists on site. The push for authenticity, with real people and objects instead of CGI, is reminiscent of a Cecil B. DeMille film. But instead of one man parting the Red Sea, countless hands extract a young soccer team from the bowels of a cave and its mountain spirit.
The performances by Viggo Mortensen (Rick Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthan), and Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris) are very inward focused. Colin Farrell’s performance was so subdued, it took me 30 minutes to recognize him. The trio portray guys who are extremely technical and nerdy, but also stalwart with self-belief, traits required in the exotic field of cave rescues. You couldn’t risk your life to retrieve what you believe will be dead bodies, unless you were sure you would yourself survive.
The cultural aspects
One of the shadows that hovered over me during this film was the white savior nuance. I had never really perceived the Thai Cave Rescue as such, and the 3 preceding films had not left me with that perception at all. Instead, I had felt like the world came together and did something amazing.
But Howard’s production hit me the opposite way, almost immediately and almost throughout. I had to really think about why.
In this film, there are a number of scenes and character glances that connote a them-versus-us environment. It starts with language as a barrier. There don’t appear to be any translators, and things only get done if the Thai person speaks or understands English. The white rescuers make no attempt to speak the language or mingle with the Thai Navy Seals or any Thai people. The film even focuses on Stanton’s desire to eat some British packaged snack that isn’t available in Thailand. The sense is that the men are in their own bubble within a bubble of local and international rescuers.
A long time ago, there were studies that showed how a millisecond shot could affect how viewers interpreted a scene. Along that vein, there are repeated shots where the Thai Navy Seal commander has a stiff face that connotes he is acceding control and decision-making to interlopers. The underlying conflict and resentment arise most often in meetings with the Thai Governor.
The Thai Governor in charge of the entire operation is depicted as an official who had already been terminated from his position. The film initially positions him as a guy meant to take the blame when the mission inevitably fails. So when he gives the crucial go-ahead to anesthetize the boys in order to get them out, and says he will take full responsibility, it doesn’t have any weight. Because he’d already established that being the fall guy is why he’s still there. I hadn’t seen this situation alluded to in any other film, and I didn’t really understand why it was included here, unless it was to depict the Thai government as indecisive and less than competent.
On the other hand, there are many scenes showing Thais contributing to the rescue work, one who loses his life, and others barely getting out of the cave as it floods. There is some focus on the work of the Thai-American water engineer. But otherwise, Thai people are background NPCs (non-player characters), just like the slaves building the pyramids in De Mille’s The Ten Commandments.
After putting all these implicit biases together, it was perplexing to see so many reviews explicitly praise Ron Howard for avoiding the white savior narrative. Maybe as an Asian-American, I am one of the few to see this film in the opposite way. I tried to find any reviews by Thai journalists, but google failed to assist me.
Howard’s film is the first of the retellings to actually have a little soccer in it, and to regularly reference the concomitant 2018 World Cup that progresses during the rescue. I thought that was a cute touch, although it made me remember, was this the only reason the world cared back then? Because it related to the biggest sporting event in the world? I perhaps should not be so cynical.
One reason so many versions of the Thai Cave Rescue are out there is because participants sold their stories to different productions. The players’ stories were sold to an upcoming Netflix series, but there is a small depiction in this film of how the boys were calmed through their ordeal by meditation. I had read back in 2018 that the young coach was a former monk. In the ending credits, Howard’s film mentions that Coach Ekapol Chanthawong and 4 players were stateless. They were all granted Thai citizenship shortly after the rescue.
The MGM executive who bought Ron Howard’s project left after Amazon bought MGM. The film was meant to be watched on the big screen, in a dark claustrophobic theatre. To stream it at home probably does not do it justice. For people who just want to be entertained, it’s on Amazon and therefore widely available. For people who want to understand how difficult this rescue was, to hear it from the rescuers themselves, and to be inspired, I highly recommend The Rescue, but unfortunately you have to subscribe to Disney+.
7 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 7
- Released: 2022-08-05 (Amazon)
- In English and Thai, with English sub-titles
- 2 hours 27 minutes
- Director: Ron Howard
- Stars: Viggo Mortensen , Colin Farrell , Joel Edgerton
- Watch the Trailer