Movie Review: “Thirteen Lives”

Reviewed by Paul Gibbs

It’s not cool in the cinephile world to be a fan of director Ron Howard (just to reference his narration for Arrested Development.). But while Howard’s career has been admittedly inconsistent in terms of quality of his films, some of the criticism is unfair. In particular I take issue with the accusation that Howard has no distinctive style or vision as a director, as I can spot some of his signature visuals rather quickly. And for me, what characterizes Howard as a director most of all is his clear passion for the subjects he portrays, and his desire to make an audience experience them in a way they haven’t before. Whether it’s firefighting, spaceflight, mathematics, Formula 1 racing, boxing, whaling or even conducting television interviews, Howard tries to portray it in a way that makes the audience feel like they’re there. In his latest film, Thirteen Lives, he takes that approach with cave diving.

Thirteen Lives tells the story of the 2018 Thai cave rescue, when 12 member of a boy’s soccer team and their coach became trapped in a cave which was rapidly filling with water. Rescucers from around the world banded together in an effort to save them. The 1995 classic Apollo 13 remains arguably Howard’s best film, and here he’s once again mining suspense from a real-life story where we know the outcome (it even has the same number in the title.). Happily, the results are similarly successful, and this ranks among the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s best. When Howard is at the top of his game he can be one of the most skilled technical craftsmen in Hollwood, and he and his crew are at the top of their game here. One of the outstanding elements is the use of sound during the diving sequences. I fear that most viewers won’t be able to appreciate how immersive the sound mixing and editing in the diving sequences are, due to the direct to Amazon Prime video release (it was screened in a theater for local press.).

The acting is uniformly strong, with Viggo Mortenson, Colin Farrell and Joel Edgerton all rock-solid as some of the most prominent divers. While these characters and their relationships aren’t developed as fully as the astronauts of Apollo 13 were, that’s because Howard and screenwriter William Nicholson have chosen a broader focus. There is clearly a conscious effort being made to avoid turning this into just another white savior story. Focus is shared with the people of Thailand who rallied to save the boys, from the families to the military to the local farmers. Even the Thai spiritual beliefs are portrayed with respect and sensitivity, never gawked at or treated as quaint or even exotically mysterious.

Despite knowing the outcome, I was completely caught up in the story every step of the way, gripping my armrests tightly in the diving sequences, and crying and cheering when appropriate. The film is tightly paced and always involving, and for me it ranks among the best I’ve seen this year. If you have Prime Video, take the time to watch Thirteen Lives.

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