Producers: P.J. van Sandwijk, Gabrielle Tana, Karen Lunder, William M. Connor, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard   Director: Ron Howard   Screenplay: William Nicholson  Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, Paul Gleeson, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Thiraphat Sajakul, Sukollawat Kanarot, Vithaya Pansringarm, Teeradon Supapunpinyo, Nophand Boonyai, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, U Gambira, Pattrakorn Tungsupakul and Aom-Sin Pasakorn  Distributor: Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists/Prime Video       

Grade: B+

The harrowing extraction of twelve young Thai soccer players and their coach from the flooded Tham Luang subterranean cave in 2018—a story watched by the world in real time via cable news coverage—was well told by Oscar-winning documentarians Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) in their excellent 2021 National Geographic film “The Rescue.”  There was also a less well received 2019 attempt to dramatize the story by Tom Waller, “The Cave.”  And Netflix has scheduled a mini-series, “Thai Cave Rescue,” for next fall.

Before then, however, one can watch the tale unfold in this expertly made, compelling, and satisfyingly multifaceted telling of the uplifting event by Ron Howard.  It’s possible to quibble with some of the choices made by the director and writer William Nicholson in terms of details, emphases and omissions, but overall they and their colleagues—cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, production designer Molly Hughes, costume designer Tess Schofield, editor James Wilcox and composer Benjamin Wallfisch—have done a skillful job of recreating the two-week ordeal and presenting it on screen in a dramatically effective fashion.

The film introduces the team as they decide to take an impromptu trip to the popular caves after a practice session.  They haven’t much time, since they plan to get back for a birthday party being prepared for Chai (Aom-Sin Pasakorn), their smallest member, but they’re excited by the excursion.  What they don’t know is that monsoon rains are about to hit early in the season, and the caves will quickly be inundated, trapping them on a ledge deep in the complex.  When the townspeople, realizing what’s happened, rush to the entrance, they find the place flooded.  Provincial governor Narongsak Osatanakorn (Sahajak Boonthanakit) is delegated by the government to take charge of the rescue operation, realizing that he will be the scapegoat if it fails.

Soon the military is called in, a troop of Thai Navy SEALS.  They’re bolstered by volunteers working to pump water out of the caves and by Thanet Natisri (Nophand Boonyai), a visiting Thai American who enlists the locals in diverting rainwater streaming into the caves from the rocks above into nearby fields, the farmers agreeing to destroy their harvest in the process.  Meanwhile parents, friends, newspeople and gawkers keep vigil in the area outside the cave, praying to the sleeping goddess considered the sacred place’s guardian spirit for the boys’ safety.

The most important arrivals, however, are a group of amateur cave-divers recommended to local authorities by Brit Vernon Unsworth (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), who lives nearby and has mapped the caves.  IT consultant John Volanthe (Colin Farrell) and retired fireman Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) have participated in similar rescue operations in the past, and are the first to respond, and though the Thai squad initially demur at their participation, they eventually relent, and the two men save one diver before finding the team alive but trapped deep in the caverns.

They seriously doubt their ability to bring them out through such a long, narrow tunnel filled with murky, rushing water, however, even after they enlist two more members of their elite group, Chris Jewell (Tom Bateman) and Jason Mallinson (Paul Gleeson) in the effort.  It’s only after they bring in a fifth, an Australian anesthetist named Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton), that they hatch a dangerous plan to try to bring the boys out fully sedated.

Howard, his actors and his technical team do an excellent job of dramatizing the difficulty of the operation, capturing the claustrophobic nature of the caves and the hazards of navigating them, especially when pulling along a fully unconscious boy whose breathing has to be constantly attended to; one can only imagine the stress the shoot must have involved.  The occasional use of maps and timing indications helps to keep the action clear, while Mortensen, Farrell and Edgerton in particular create credible characters, the interplay between gruff Stanton, tense Volanthe and Harris, who agonizes over the feasibility of their plan, especially well caught.  Bateman gets his chance to shine in a scene when he gets lost transporting one of the boys to safety.

Inevitably there’s a touch of the familiar “white savior” cliché to the action, but Nicholson and Howard compensate by shifting attention to others engaged in the overall operation—not so much other international visitors (the American military gets only a brief mention), but local heroes.  Natisri and those who assist him are periodically shown doing yeoman service to deter further flooding, and the death of one of the Thai SEALS, Saman Kunan (Sukollawat Kanarot) is depicted with both tension and dignity.  The visit of revered Buddhist monk Kruba Boonchum (U Gambira) to pray at the shrine is treated with similar grace.  And while encapsulating the plight of the parents of the boys by focusing on the single figure of Chai’s mother (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) is a rather weak gesture, even the governor is portrayed as a principled individual willing to make hard choices despite the knowledge that he’s a pawn in a wider political game.  One might wish for greater nuance in the depiction of the boys—only Chai and the coach (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) receive much focus—but as a group they’re certainly kids you can’t help but admire and root for.  The same applies to the folks outside waiting for news.

“Thirteen Lives” is unabashedly uplifting, a panegyric to international cooperation in a good cause—in other words, a Ron Howard movie, and one that’s exceptionally well done.  If you’d prefer to watch a take on such a tragedy told from the opposite extreme of the cynicism spectrum, there’s always Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole.”