The miraculous 2018 rescue of the Wild Boars football team and their coach from the Tham Luang caves was always destined to become a cinematic drama.
Even though the world knows the outcome, it ticked all the boxes for drama, danger, and exhilaration. The question is whether Hollywood would ruin it with anything too popcorn.
But in the hands of revered director Ron Howard, Thirteen Lives is both emotional and respectful (a 2019 film The cave by Thai-Irish director Tom Waller beat him instantly).
The 2.5 hour feature film was shot both in Thailand’s Chaing Rai province and on the Gold Coast, suspect mainly for tank and interior scenes. To the eye it looks very authentic Thai with landscaping, signage, extras, clothing, props and vehicles.
It was an exciting day when the Wild Boars and the “Eak” coach entered the caves under the Doi Nang Non mountain, which is said to look like a “sleeping princess”. But while the locals believed the princess was angry, heavy rains began falling before the monsoon season, trapping the team in its 10km system.
Local Governor Narongsak (Sahajak Boonthanakit), who was in his final weeks in the position, ordered the Thai Navy SEALs into action, but heavy rains and the dangers of cave diving drove local British expatriate Veron Unsworth ( Lewis Fitz-Gerald) to recommend experience divers John Volanthen (Viggo Mortensen) and Rick Stanton (Colin Farrell) fly in from London to assist. But they encounter a cultural gap and a bit of bureaucracy over who is leading the rescue, and Thais don’t want the deaths of foreigners in their hands.
If it takes a village to mount a rescue, it took a Chiang Rai province, with locals trying to divert groundwater from seeping into the cave system, even if it meant farmers would see their crops destroyed…. “For the guys.”
The exhilaration of discovering the boys were alive was only half the battle.
“Those kids will never get out,” says John Volanthen.
But a secret plan would be bravely devised.
The story of Australian anesthetist Dr. Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) sedating boys with ketamine is well documented, but seeing it acted out as drama is still tense. There was no precedent for this experiment in the real world…. too much could kill the boys, too little could see them waking up underwater and panicking. The underwater trekking also lasted more than 6 hours.
The rescue also resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot), the hero of his ultimate sacrifice.
If the drama of the rescue isn’t conflicted enough, Ron Howard highlights the power struggles within Thai circles and the frustrations of British divers, as well as the desperation of Thai parents. The scenes staged with media from around the world look very authentic, including how they were protected from seeing the boys as they emerged one by one from the cave system.
But this is also a film and the danger increases in the third act thanks to heavier rains and a race against time to get out the last kids and divers before they die.
There are significant sides to the story, including the statelessness of several boys and Coach Eak, and a personal tragedy for Harris.
If there’s anything missing, perhaps it’s the reality that Harris and others could have faced years in the Thai legal system if anything went wrong.
Instead they became heroes.
Thirteen Lives is powerful and authentic, even with Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, and shows what can be achieved when nations -17- in total work together. It also reaches the screens before a Netflix miniseries Thai cave rescue with includes several Australian stars.
And, most pleasantly, the story was not exploited by Hollywood after all.
Thirteen Lives Friday, August 5 on Prime Video.