The story begins as we get to know the Wild Boars, hours before their group decision to take a detour to explore a cave before heading off to a teammate’s birthday. Alarm bells are triggered when only one boy shows up to the party. It’s soon discovered the team is trapped deep inside a treacherous network of caves. As early monsoon rains approach it becomes a race against time to rescue the stranded soccer players before the caves fill with water.
When a rescue attempt by the Royal Thai Navy SEALs fails, local cave diver Vernon Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) appeals to English splunkers, John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), for help. After an arduous dive of more than seven hours, they find the boys alive, but how do they get them out through the winding maze of quickly flooding caves?
As water engineer Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai) devises ways of diverting the water from the caves, anesthetist Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) and cavers Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson) who develop an audacious plan to administer a sedative to the boys, ensuring they did not panic during the watery, claustrophobic swim to safety.
“Thirteen Lives” is first and foremost a tribute to the courage of, not only the rescuers, but also of the people trapped in their subterranean prison. In the showdown of man vs. nature, it took bravery and brains to succeed, not just brawn. Howard takes his time, carefully doling out the details of the rescue plan, creating great tension in a story with a well-known ending. But knowing the outcome doesn’t take away from the effectiveness of the tale. The drama here is in the details, the careful planning and its bold execution.
Howard emphasizes action over character in many of the scenes, never allowing Harris, Jewell or Mallinson to overtly hero-it-up and pull focus from the mission at hand. The low-key performances dodge the white savior aspect of the story, while emphasizing the key factors of communication, camaraderie and cooperation between the rescuers. It may be slightly hokey, but when the actual cave diving begins—the narrow caves are almost impossibly tight and very claustrophobic—the all-business approach gives way to a kind of wonder as Howard terrifyingly recreates the cramped retrievals.
“Thirteen Lives” does away with many of the tropes of a big rescue movie. Big speeches and back slapping are kept to a minimum. Instead, the life-and-death stakes speak for themselves.