Why the daring rescue of Thai boys is a Ron Howard must-see

13 Lives, about the soccer team trapped in a cave, resonates with us

13 Lives official poster

Here’s an amazing true story that just needed to be told on film for the world to see.  13 Lives, produced and directed by Ron Howard, recounts the daring rescue of 13 boys who were trapped in a flooded cave for several weeks. It happened only four years ago in a picturesque town in the northernmost tip of Thailand. Their ordeal made international headlines, and many countries sent help. Hundreds of volunteers, local and foreign, flocked to the town to help in any way they could,

The 12 boys were all members of a soccer team, and were accompanied by their 25-year-old assistant coach. The Tham Luang cave gets flooded in the rainy season, so it’s closed to the public from July to November. But since it was June and sunny, the team went on spelunking adventure. Unexpectedly, a sudden heavy downpour flooded the cave. Parents who expected their children home by dinner got worried and informed the police.

The film’s first 45 minutes focuses on the government’s response to the situation. Two cave divers who specialize in rescues are called in from England. Rock Stanton (played by Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) are considered the world’s best cave divers. Much of the footage shows the two divers in the cave underwater, searching for the boys. Whether they’re still alive or already dead is still unknown to them.

For this part of the movie, screenwriter William Nicholson purposely excludes scenes involving the trapped boys. We’re not supposed to know their present condition. When they’re finally seen alive and well, we viewers get to share in the profound joy of the hundreds waiting outside the cave.

We know what the final outcome is, yet the rescue scenes remain suspenseful

But the celebratory mood is cut short, since it’s said that there is no way to get those boys out. It did take seven to eight arduous hours of diving just to reach them. We know what the final outcome is, yet the rescue scenes remain suspenseful. This is a testament to the brilliant filmmaking of Ron Howard and writer William Nicholson.

Howard made a human drama, not an action thriller. His direction of 13 Lives is what Hollywood insiders would describe as workmanlike. There are no audacious stunts or filmmaking techniques, and no director’s trademarks to attract attention. It‘s the story and the people involved that matter. Howard had also directed the acclaimed 1995 film Apollo 13, which had a similar premise. Somehow, 13 Lives resonates stronger with audiences. The astronauts in Apollo 13 were trained to deal with emergencies and perhaps even face death at any time. In contrast, the marooned children, well, are just kids. We Pinoys empathize even more with their families because they’re Thai and they look just like us.

13 Lives is also reminiscent of Raid on Entebbe, which is also a matter-of-fact account of an audacious rescue, this time of hundreds of Air France passengers held hostage in Uganda. Starring Charles Bronson, Raid on Entebbe showcased the human side of this infamous event in history.  But the rescue scenes were also thrilling and well-choreographed.

Like the Charles Bronson movie, the rescue in Tham Luang cave is gripping. Yet there is no gunfire or fight scenes, just underwater footage that promises to make you feel claustrophobic. Outside the cave, human compassion is at its zenith. You’ll also feel empathy for the volunteers and the villagers because you hope the sacrifices they made to help save the boys wouldn’t be in vain.

Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell don’t present themselves as hotshot heroes…. And there’s Thai-American heartthrob Nophand Boonyai

I also like the way the British divers were written. They’re old friends and their relationship has its funny moments, though not “Hasta la Vista, baby” kind of funny. They’re just real, normal people as played by Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell. They don’t present themselves as hotshot heroes out to show off their unequaled prowess in cave diving. In fact, the hunky Thai divers thought the two to be too old for the rescue mission!

The two stars are supported by a wonderful cast of Thai actors led by Sahajak Boonthanakit (The Beach, Brokedown Palace). He plays, with great dignity, the beleaguered governor placed in charge of the rescue operations. And there’s Thai-American heartthrob Nophand Boonyai who plays a Thai-American groundwater expert. He enlists the villagers, using bamboo pipes, to divert the flow of the water spilling into the cave.

Howard’s film is a beautiful tribute to the selfless people who helped rescue the boys. It’s also a valentine to the valor of the divers and to the gracious Thais. The two Navy Seal divers who lost their lives are also lovingly remembered. This movie guarantees to restore your faith in humanity.

Also, it promises to make viewers wary of spelunking. I’ve been wary of it for years, especially after exploring the great Sumaguing Cave in Sagada. I live by the adage, “If you’ve seen one cave, you’ve seen them all.” But if so far you’ve seen only one Ron Howard film, then make 13 Lives your second.

13 Lives is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Credit: Prime Video/YouTube

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About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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