Thirteen Lives Vividly Depicts an Extraordinary Rescue

Even though we know the world isn’t suddenly spinning faster, it’s hard to shake the feeling that time is speeding up on us. In early summer 2018, 12 boys and their assistant soccer coach were trapped for more than two weeks in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, their situation becoming increasingly dire as heavy rainfall threatened to engulf the cave’s chambers completely. The boys’ coach and assistant soccer coach were trapped in the cave for more than two weeks. Volunteers came from all corners of the globe to rescue them, but it became doubtful that they would be rescued alive. Amazingly rescuers managed to pull it off.

The world continued on, however, as it does every day, despite the joyful news. That’s the wonder of Ron Howard’s vivid true-life drama Treisteen LivesThe rescue operation suspends the time indefinitely, which allows us to quickly forget about our worries and make a mental note of how amazing it was. If we didn’t know the ending, this picture might be unbearably tense. We have the advantage of seeing the future as well as being able read it. Threeteen lives and that leaves us free to enjoy Howard’s crackerjack storytelling skills, not to mention the picture’s bracing, casually heroic lead performances.

Ron Howard as Director on the Set of Thirteen Lives

Vince Valitutti—Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen play John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, volunteer cave divers—who knew there was such a thing?—from England who are adept at complex rescues. When they arrive on the scene, they’re greeted with distrust by the Royal Thai Navy SEALs entrusted with the operation, particularly Commander Kiet (Thira Chutikul). It doesn’t help that they show up in middle-aged-dad gear, having argued earlier about who took one custard-cream biscuit too many from the packet. As it turns out, they’re the ones who locate the boys, after barely skimming, in their bulky diving gear, through a series of terrifyingly slender underwater tunnels. “The old men found the boys!” one of the SEALs exclaims in subtitled Thai upon their return. The “old” part is only half a joke.

The boys were trapped, but that was just the start. It took three hours of dangerous underwater swimming to get them out. The solution finally settled upon—requiring the specialized expertise of yet another rescue diver, Joel Edgerton’s Harry Harris—was a gamble, with potentially chilling consequences. In case you don’t remember, or never knew, the specifics, they won’t be spoiled here.

The story was told before on film, most notably in 2021’s documentary The Rescue, The footage was taken during the mission by Thai Navy SEALs. Similarly, Treisteen Lives stresses that Volanthen, Stanton, and Harris, though they’re played by movie stars, are just three links in the complex chain that made this near-miracle possible. One Thai diver died during the rescue, and another later succumbed to a blood infection he’d contracted during the operation.

Howard is particularly sensitive in his depiction of the boys’ families, who waited outside the cave for days on end, steeling themselves for a tragic outcome. You can see the joy on the faces of these boys, who were ablaze with joy when they were found by divers after 10 difficult days. This is all that you need to understand about the reasons rescuers worked so hard for them to be free. If you can’t move heaven and earth, then you move a little bit of water, with all your strength, until the open sky comes into view.

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