‘Thirteen Lives’ Review: Ron Howard’s Biographical Survival Film Favors Realism Over Drama

The cave rescue of the Thai children trapped in Tham Luang will always stand as a feat of human achievement and the ability to overcome impossible odds. Back in the summer of 2018, a group of kids between the ages of 11-16 decided to go into a local cave. A part of the local soccer team named the Wild Boars, the group headed to Tham Luang Nang Non in order to celebrate the birthday of one of their teammates, taking their team coach with them. Unfortunately, monsoon season, typically set from July to November, comes early and the cave is completely flooded, trapping the boys and their coach inside the vast and labyrinthian cave system.

On its own, the story of this rescue is inspiring, and the 18 day story kept the world at the edge of their seats. It is nearly impossible not to feel emotional at the conclusion of the rescue. With tens of thousands of people from all over the world volunteering their time and skill to save the children, it’s a miracle that all the children and their coach were rescued, with the entire rescue claiming only two lives. Thirteen Lives endeavors to tell this complicated tale, highlighting not only the fears of the parents of the children but the struggles of a handful of expert cave divers who spearheaded the mission. It’s a tall order and Ron Howard just manages to pull it off with a few hiccups.


When I went into Thirteen Lives, it was after I had already experienced the highs and lows of this rescue through the eyes of a documentary. The Rescue, which I saw at a film festival last year, was directed and produced by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (you might also know them for their work on Free Solo). It was impossible for me to go into Thirteen Lives without using what I learned in The Rescue as a form of perspective and comparison. Do Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell do the real-life divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen justice? Does the story give consideration to the Thai Navy SEALs who sacrificed their lives for this rescue? Does the movie depict how impossible and difficult the task is? Does the story focus not only on the divers but the thousands of volunteers, some of whom helped dam the water and divert rainfall from flooding the caves even more? Do they accurately explain how dangerous the task of removing the boys from the cave one by one is?

RELATED: Ron Howard on ‘Thirteen Lives,’ Not Hollywoodizing the Story, and Viggo Mortensen’s Influence on the Diving Scenes

For all of these answers, Thirteen Lives got it right. Mortensen particularly as Stanton, who is rather emotionally cold but impressively capable, is able to grasp the nuance of Stanton’s feelings on the situation. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon and a bit prickly, but that doesn’t dilute his heroism. If anything, his ability to emotionally distance himself from the dire situation works in his favor. It makes a good pairing with Farrell’s Volanthen who is much warmer, and as a father himself, can keenly imagine the pain that the parents of the children feel.

When it comes to the representation of the Thai people who played a large part in the rescue, it still feels like it falls short. However, the rights to the story of this cave rescue are actually far more complicated than you might think. The criticism that I have for this story is the same that I had for the documentary, which is where is the perspective of the children? Where is the perspective of the families? We get glimpses at the parents, particularly Pattrakorn Tungsupakul who plays Buahom, a single mom of one of the younger boys in the group. And then also with the Thai volunteers and citizens on the mountain who work to prevent more water from filling the cave, even if it means sacrificing the livelihood of their crop yields for the year. But it largely takes a backseat to the drama with the divers.

Similarly, there’s a discussion about the fact that several of the kids and the coach trapped in the cave are stateless, which means that they do not have access to the basic benefits and rights of Thai citizens. This is barely touched on, so it’s difficult for the audience to truly understand the fear that the parents had for their children who had no nationality or citizenship.

But, those stories all seem to be wrapped up in rights issues, with Netflix reportedly owning the rights to the story of the kids. It’s unclear the status of the project, but without the perspective of the families and the kids, the movie runs into the problem of potentially appearing too much like a story about white saviors. And don’t get me wrong, this rescue would actually be impossible without Brits like Stanton and Volanthen’s expertise, but from an emotional angle, Thirteen Lives ultimately feels a bit incomplete.

Where it absolutely excels is in its portrayal of the tense dives that the rescuers have to go through. This is far from a casual swim. The dives often require hours of time, squeezing through incredibly tight spaces, with little to no visibility, and if you get lost, you might be trapped in the massive cave system and drown. Here, the claustrophobic cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (Call Me by Your Name) shines through. Even the experienced Thai Navy SEALs are ill-equipped to face these challenges. And even after the children are all found alive, the task of getting them out of the cave, swimming through 4 kilometers of the cave, seems like a death sentence. Thirteen Lives rightly has the actors performing most of the stunts with the dive. You can feel just how tedious and deadly the dive is, and it feels realistic without having to dip into extreme dramatization.

Indeed, the story itself is so naturally dramatic and fraught that there’s not much that Howard needed to do other than recreate the story. Without spoiling too much of the rescue for those who managed to dodge the news on the news as it was developing, Howard’s no-frills approach to Thirteen Lives is what makes it such a success. There are still moments when the dive feels exhausting, but that only speaks to the reality of this dive that took several hours, where even the slightest mistake could mean disaster. It could easily play as a double feature with a documentary due to how realistic its portrayal is. Despite the issues with the rights, Howard succeeds in conveying the Herculean task of the compelling Tham Luang cave rescue.

Grade: B

Thirteen Lives is available to stream on Prime Video now.

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