‘Thirteen Lives’ review: Ron Howard’s No-Frills Rescue Rescue Drama Has Too Much Air, Too Little Depth

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell star in Hollywood’s dramatic representation of an incredible story better told before.

It’s been less than a year since “Free Solo” directors E Chai Vasarheli and Jimmy Chin released “Rescue,” a fascinating documentary about the international effort to safely extract 12 boys and their soccer coach from the depths of a flooded cave system in Thailand’s summer 2018. The movie is (and still is) so terrifying, and so full of flawless recreations by the divers involved, that it seemed like it would still be the definitive version of this story. As I wrote in my review at the time: “The Rescue is intense enough that even Michael Bay and Peter Berg must realize that no huge budget drama can match it.”

For Ron Howard, it was already too late. An entertainment veteran whose generosity of spirit and an affinity for danger has always tended to strengthen one another in the service of victorious disaster movies like “Apollo 13,” he may have been compelled to save the cave from the moment it happened, and sure It was well into post-production on its own version of events by the time Chin and Vasarhelyi came out.

Said with no frills, less character, and enough quiet dignity to sustain himself for 18 days (or 147 minutes), Howard’s “Thirteen Lives” is a far cry from the kind of thrilling spectacle that some of his Hollywood contemporaries might create from such material. However, the Let the story speak for itself The approach feels wrong in the wake of a documentary so rich with big characters, complicated with unsettling suspense, and shaded by a lingering sense of moral ambivalence.

Where “The Rescue” was a non-fiction thriller about the weight of our mutual commitment to one another and the complications of trying to bear it in the midst of crisis, “Thirteen Lives” is a bleak (if death-defying) Viggo Mortensen drama about some handsome white men trying not to Act like movie stars when they appear in a foreign country and are tasked with salvaging the situation.

If the value that Thirteen Lives offers to people who have seen The Rescue is negligible to the point of nonexistence, it is clear that Howard’s movie deserves to be judged on its own merits, and even viewers unfamiliar with the Tham Luang cave saga will dominate at least a little bit. How to submit it here. The story it tells is incredible enough to transcend any flaws in the narrative, and Howard is a very qualified filmmaker to interfere with his core strength.

However, “Thirteen Lives” often looks fun in spite of itself. From the moment the movie begins, it is enveloped in the thorny indifference of a movie trying to get out of its own way. There is a sense of pre-set how Howard casually follows the Wild Boars soccer team into the caves, as William Nicholson’s screenplay focuses our attention on the youngest boy so we have an emotional foothold later (that comes through in his frankly detail, mostly as innocent and heartbreaking as SpongeBob’s birthday cake). Square). Worried when their children don’t come home, the outgoing ruler of Chiang Rai – played by Sahajak Punthanakit in a vaguely defined role struck by the balance he strikes between political opportunism and genuine anxiety – creates a crisis center and time begins to drip away like water flowing into caves Tham Luang from the sewer above.

Time quickly becomes an issue for Thirteen Lives as much as the people in it. Days skip ahead with little sense of escalation, and the film’s parallel subplots — the most poignant of which shines a light on local farmers who agreed to sacrifice their crops in order to help the rescue effort — rarely feel like they happen simultaneously. Even before a pair of weary, middle-aged British cave divers arrive on the scene in one cut-off (Howard limits their personal history to one phone call before the trip), this story already lacks an air of desperation, and their breakup is never resolved with enough care to make it seem like A deliberate foil to the film’s celebration of the collective spirit.

This is not to say that Thirteen Lives exaggerates the individual heroism that made the rescue possible, or that it falls into the usual Hollywood trap of elevating Western philanthropists above the foreigners dedicating themselves to their rescue. The fact that a 60-year-old retired firefighter from Essex (Mortensen as Rick Stanton) and an IT consultant in Bristol (Colin Farrell as John Volanthen) helped lead Operation Tham Luang certainly makes this episode even more appealing to the English-speaking world, but Nicholson’s script He goes to great lengths to highlight the efforts of Chiang Rai locals, the Royal Thai Navy, and the US Air Force, and portray all parties involved in the best possible light.

If anything, Howard is so afraid of making this into the story of Stanton and Volanthen that he almost makes them turn into impersonal characters just to make sure they don’t overpower the rest of the group. How can Mortensen’s decision to play Rick — in real life, an introverted Herzogian idiot with a supernatural talent for cave diving and a grim sense of humor that reflects the strange comfort he finds in dark places — as a sullen, ferocious person who doesn’t. Doesn’t he seem to believe in his abilities?

Farrell did better as the more elegant and upbeat Volanthen (the reformed bad boy reverberates with the same frustrated dignity that made his last performance in After Yang so powerful), but both of these guys are crushed by the sheer weight of their mission that leaves little room for anything else. While it appears that John has a son about the same age as a wild boar, a simple acknowledgment of this fact is our only insight into what might be going through his head. Obviously, the actual rescue was a dismal affair, but even the astronauts trapped inside Apollo 13 got more room to breathe.

The bright side of such silent characterizations is that they draw more attention to the burden Rick and John bear once they appear; The commitment they felt there was unexplored (it can’t be easy to tell that you’re one of the only people on earth with the skills required to rescue some stranger on the other side of the world), but “Thirteen Lives” in the slippery scales of mission success once they begin the operation. When Rick and John first appear in the cave, it looks like they’ll be heroes to save even one boy. When the entire soccer team is found alive – albeit in a cave room so inaccessible that their death is still inevitable – it suddenly becomes clear that Rick and John will be held responsible if they fail to come to the rescue. All who are they.

While Howard’s movie derives most of its tension from the planning and logistics of the various dives, all of which become more complex once Rick gets the wild idea of ​​hiring an anesthesiologist named Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton isn’t quite convinced), “Thirteen Lives” is at its best when bypassing the tight split That separates the miracle from fiasco, saving a life from ending it. The more practical aspects are not well clear. While the rescue itself is filmed with live intensity emphasizing the dangers involved, and an immersive sound design helps convey alien hostility to Earth’s deadliest environments, Howard is sometimes reluctant to let his audience engage in the claustrophobia that makes it so difficult to get the kids out of that cave. .

Harvard’s full sensual ethnographic approach may have been hard to anticipate, but “Thirteen Lives” needed to confront the sheer hell of what divers had to navigate in Tham Luang in order for the film to unfold as a more tantalizing reminder that our world may not be as insoluble as It seems. This is why “The Rescue” benefits so much from prioritizing hyper-convergent intensity more broadly from point of view; Why do these more modest films radiate true miracle awe, when major Hollywood productions have to content themselves with the feel of a good job.

Grade: C +

United Artists Releasing “Thirteen Lives” will open in select theaters on Friday, July 29. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, August 5.

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