Film Review - Thirteen Lives
This image released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures shows director Ron Howard, right, on the set of "Thirteen Lives." (Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures via AP)

In ‘Thirteen Lives,’ Ron Howard directs the Thai cave rescue


It may be common etiquette to not spoil the end of a film, but Ron Howard learned years ago on “Apollo 13” that knowing the outcome of a story is different from knowing the story itself. And though the 2018 rescue of the Thai boys’ soccer team and their coach is considerably fresher in our collective memories, Howard saw in it a similar opportunity.

“You may know on a headline basis that things worked out well, but you don’t know what kind of personal struggles may be in store for the key characters,” Howard said. “Through dramatization, through good acting and scenes and moviemaking, you begin to connect emotionally with the characters in a way that you just can’t with a straight documentary or with news coverage.”

The story was in some ways tailor made for a Hollywood film with its happy ending and straightforward acts of heroism. The 18-day saga has already inspired a great documentary, “ The Rescue, " and several other projects. But the reality of making “Thirteen Lives," now playing in theaters in select cities and available on Prime Video Friday, was an enormously complex and sometimes harrowing endeavor. Even Howard said it ranks in the “upper quadrant” of his most challenging films.

And it wasn’t just about the difficulties of filming the dangerous cave diving in the narrow, underwater corridors of Tham Luang Lang Non, which were recreated for the film by production designer Molly Hughes, but of telling the stories of all the people who helped make the impossible mission successful. As everyone would quickly come to realize, there were quite a few people worthy of the camera's focus. There were the British divers and the Thai Navy SEALS, of course, but also the parents, the boys and the coach in the cave, the public servants managing the crisis and the thousands of foreign and local volunteers who contributed in big and small ways.

“I felt a little bit like a conductor,” Howard said. “Logistically, it was very complicated. And I felt a deeper responsibility to getting this right on behalf of those involved than probably any other movie that I’ve made based on real events.”

Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the bulk of filming took place in Queensland, Australia, with additional photography in Thailand that Howard had to direct remotely. It was a hurdle for him because top of mind was making sure the story was as authentically Thai as possible. He enlisted a team of Thai artists and producers to help, including the great cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“Call Me By Your Name”).

“I knew that that was not only the right thing to do, but I sensed that it would be, you know, terrible if we got it wrong,” Howard said.

Another was producer Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who was tasked with infusing William Nicholson’s (“Gladiator”) script with details and nuances of Northern Thai culture, from the proper way to style a visiting Burmese Monk, to the use of prayer and regional accents.

“A large portion of the film is in Thai, which is quite an unusual thing for a Hollywood film,” Phathanavirangoon said. “We painstakingly tried to get the accents right. Even in Thai cinema, you rarely hear people speak with a Northern accent.”

Naturally, though, there is a focus on the British divers who swam the boys and the coach out of the cave one by one. The roles attracted the likes of Viggo Mortensen (as Rick Stanton), Colin Farrell (as John Volanthen) and Joel Edgerton (as Dr. Harris), who developed close relationships with their real-life counterparts.

“What they do as a pastime is kind of beyond my comprehension,” said Farrell. “They really are subterranean explorers. And talking to them, I suppose the most amazing thing was the normality that they exude. They’re not adrenaline junkies.”

Going in, the plan was for the actors to do some of the cave diving and to supplement it with stunt double work. There would be a dive supervisor in Andrew Allen and an underwater director of photography in Simon Christidis. But somewhere in the intense three-week training, the decision was made that the actors would do most of the cave scenes themselves.

“I kind of blame the Viggo,” Farrell laughed. “He was the one that was insisting that we should do it. But I was in for a penny, in for a pound.”

Stanton and Jason Mallinson (played in the film by Paul Gleeson) were also on set, and often in the water alongside the actors coaching them through the process. And it was scary at times, especially for Farrell who said he is not the strongest swimmer.

“It was as safe and controlled as it could be. But there was a couple of times it was rather nerve-racking,” Farrell said. “Full scale panic attack maybe wasn’t exactly what I had but there were moments of anxiety, a very real anxiety. I suppose I’m describing a panic attack of sorts, albeit a light one.”

But everyone was also keenly aware that their experience was just a small fraction of the life and death stakes of the actual mission. It wasn’t a set, Mortensen said, where people were complaining about the breakfast burritos, the coffee or the weather, especially with the real divers close by.

“It was high demand. It was difficult,” said Tom Bateman, who plays diver Chris Jewell. “But we’re just holding the candle up to some incredible people. Never once did anyone complain.”

And in “Thirteen Lives,” everyone had a shared sense of purpose. It is, after all, a rare real life example of selflessness and global collaboration that didn’t have to be dramatized much at all.

“I’m very happy to be in it not just because it’s Ron Howard and it’s a great adventure story and also very entertaining. But it’s an important story,” Mortensen said. “It’s an important example of people doing the right thing together and a huge amount of people selflessly volunteering for the right reasons, for the common good, and that’s remarkable these days.”

“It should be more common rather than selfish, greedy, power grabbing, competitive, dishonest behavior, which is exemplified by many leaders around the world. When you see people not do that, you say, ‘Oh yeah humans are capable of that. It’s possible.’ Why not have more of that? It’s not just some Hollywood movie. It’s like, ‘Oh, this really happened. These people did that together,’” he added. “That is the best of us.”

© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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He’s still alive?

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I'll be disappointed if Elon Musk's vile comment about the rescue attempt isn't in the movie.

9 ( +9 / -0 )

It may be common etiquette to not spoil the end of a film, but Ron Howard learned years ago on “Apollo 13” 

Oh I know how it’s gonna end, just like all Ron Howard films, with an obnoxious crescendo.

-5 ( +1 / -6 )

I hope the Rescued and Rescuers both, are allowed to review the Film for it's accuracy.

The feat that was carried out, was actually astounding, and showed a lot of courage and expertise from the Rescuers. Serious Cave Diving is, not for many, and is fraught with loads of Dangers beyond mental strength.

The Whole effort was tarred somewhat by the harmful "Pedo" comments made at the time, by a certain individual...

How that individual won his case, remains a mystery to me - the Law even suggested he was right ?

I really feel sorry for the Caver "Vernon Unsworth", he really should be cleared of any association with being a "Pedo", though it seems Money, in this case, buys you immunity. The fact is, that "Vernon Unsworth", helped saved the lives of 12 young boys at the time, something he should remain credited with as being a true "Hero" - even his ex-Wife says so.

I can also imagine, the reason why "Unsworth" got the scorn of that Individual, since introducing new and untried technology into a rescue situation adds additional uncertainty into an already dire situation, something which the said Individual, probably hasn't experienced before, I wonder even, if he has any qualification with first aid, at all ? Sadly, all Lawyers are unequal, you get what you can afford.

I hope, that this film, adds to its Credits, that "Unsworth" was and is a normal person, and "NOT A PEDO" ... such as that Individual suggested.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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