Thirteen Lives

Year: 2022
Production Co: Imagine Entertainment
Studio: MGM
Director: Ron Howard
Writer: William Nicholson/Don McPherson
Cast: Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton

I followed the overview of the trapped soccer team in the flooded cave in Thailand as it happened like most people on social media, but had no idea of the details this movie depicts.

Aside from everything else, and – quite decoupled from any merit of the drama on screen – it highlights a peculiarity about human society we seldom realise. When something goes wrong or people are in danger, we assume there's a team of experts somewhere who can be wrangled by the authorities to deal with the exact crisis going on.

In this case, I assumed a speed dial phone call from the equivalent of the Thailand police search and rescue would quickly assemble a crack team of rescue divers with tons of caving experience.

I was reminded of the Gates' Foundation's curbing of malaria years back just by distributing mosquito nets across Africa. Many people (including me) probably thought there'd been a body or institute in the world who's job was to do just that, and that if it hadn't happened that meant it was impossible somehow.

But no, it was just that nobody had bothered because nobody had cared enough to pay for it until a software billionaire came along and did it instead.

In the same way, as Thirteen Lives depicts, a pair of British cave divers realised they'd be the only ones with the experience to help, so one of them, Jonathan (Colin Farrell), convinced the other one, Rick (Viggo Mortensen) to fly to Thailand and offer their expertise.

Once there, the outlandish plan required the service of another colleague, Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) who's also an anaesthesiologist.

We meet the boys and their coach one sunny afternoon playing soccer, after which they decide to explore a popular local cave system in the mountains before all hustling home where they'll celebrate the birthday of one of the players.

But nobody realises the monsoon season is coming early and when the sky opens up and the boys don't show up for the party, their parents all trek over to the cave to find their bicycles scattered around the entrance and the entrance blocked off, the rain having completely flooded the cave in the course of a single afternoon.

The police are called, who then bring in Navy Seal divers, and as the media crews flood in and the notoriety builds, the trapped boys make worldwide news. A local expat Brit who knows the system calls his countrymen and exhorts them to fly to Thailand to see what they can do.

Even for Jonathan and Rick, the six hour round trip is technically arduous, with spaces barely big enough to squeeze through – meaning they have to carry oxygen tanks rather than wear them – currents sloshing water to and fro past sharp rocks, pitch blackness and with the water rising the whole time.

As the men try to formulate a plan below, another team on the mountain cap tries to find the fissures and cracks letting all the water in, diverting it onto the plains below.

There's no way a group of children with no experience can make the dive, and the unthinkable solution is to have Australian doctor Harris (Edgerton) go through and sedate the boys to unconsciousness so they can be carried out.

The true story behind the ambitious plan more or less directs itself, but director Ron Howard manages the quite clever trick of maintaining the drama during the rescue operation.

Though nail biting in cinematic terms, seeing the same action carried out thirteen times wouldn't have worked on a screen, and there's an accomplished sense of geography as they prepare another of the boys and start to bring him out as the previous one and his steward emerge at the cave entrance, the rescuer plunging back into the water for the next one.

It's slightly scary because you realise there isn't actually a team of crack navy divers somewhere with the experience and sheer mettle to rescue 13 trapped soccer players like you hope. But it's a hopeful story not just because (as history showed) they bought everyone out alive, but because human empathy, cooperation and ingenuity can do amazing things.

It's an aspect of the story Howard was doubtless attracted to, and although it contains his slight propensity to tug at the heartstrings, something about it feels vaguely procedural and unengaging, although it's probably as faithful a retelling (outside the various documentaries) of the story as you could get.

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