Thirteen Lives brings Thai cave rescue story to life with measured realism from director Ron Howard

Nothing captures the global media’s attention – and reveals its knack for distracting from the issues of the moment – quite like a good old-fashioned triumph-of-the-human-spirit tale, especially if it involves cute kids being rescued by an international cohort of heroes.

So it was in July 2018, when a Thai junior soccer team was saved from an underground cave by the efforts of local Navy SEALS, volunteers, and British and Australian divers – an operation that dominated news headlines for what seemed like forever.

Filmed in large part on the Gold Coast, Thirteen Lives – directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) from a script by Gladiator writer William Nicholson – is the latest and most high-profile of the inevitable screen versions of that event, following the 2019 Thai film The Cave and last year’s National Geographic-produced documentary, The Rescue. (A six-part Netflix drama is due next month; what a time for armchair spelunkers.)

After 10 days, British divers John Volanthen (Farrell) and Richard Stanton (Mortensen) found the group alive 4km from the cave opening.(Supplied: Amazon Prime)

The prolific Howard is nothing if not a steady hand behind the camera, and he certainly has form in putting collaborative heroism on the screen: in films like the firefighting drama Backdraft, and his tense, gripping space hit Apollo 13, the director’s workmanlike formalism proved to be a perfect match for his subjects.

For Thirteen Lives, Howard appears to be self-consciously shirking Hollywood-style heroics, taking his narrative cues from no fuss – and no frills – news reporting, in which the facts get checked off with minimal dramatic embellishment.

After a short prologue, the film wastes little time in dispatching the teen soccer team (and their 25-year-old assistant coach) to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave where they’ll be trapped by rising floodwaters, rapidly shifting its focus to the burgeoning rescue efforts – and attendant media circus – that spring up in the wake of the boys’ disappearance.

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