Review: ‘Thirteen Lives,’ starring Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Thira “Aum” Chutikul, Popetorn “Two” Soonthornyanaku, Joel Edgerton, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in “Thirteen Lives” (Photo by Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Thirteen Lives”

Directed by Ron Howard

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The dramatic film “Thirteen Lives” features a cast of white and Asian characters depicting working-class and middle-class people involved in the real-life mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “Thirteen Lives” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a very Hollywood and formulaic rescue mission story that sidelines or erases many of the perspectives of the real-life Asian people involved.

Viggo Mortensen, Tom Bateman, Colin Farrell and Thiraphat “Tui” Sajakul in “Thirteen Lives” (Photo by Vince Valitutti/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)

“Thirteen Lives” is a bland, scripted counterpart to the superior documentary “The Rescue,” presented mainly from the perspectives of the rescuers who saved 13 people trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand in 2018. This bloated drama fails to properly acknowledge the 13 Thai survivors who were trapped in the cave, in an ordeal that lasted 18 days. This misleadingly titled movie called “Thirteen Lives” isn’t about those 13 lives. It’s mostly about the lives of the two British men who are touted as the movie’s biggest heroes, with a third man from Australia as a pivotal hero sidekick.

The award-winning 2021 documentary “The Rescue” couldn’t have the perspectives of the trapped people (in 2018, they were 12 boys ranging in ages from 11 to 16 and their 25-year-old soccer coach) because Netflix bought the exclusive rights to their stories. However, as a dramatic and scripted film, “Thirteen Lives” (directed by Ron Howard and written by William Nicholson) had the freedom to at least give viewers a sense of what it must have been like for the 13 survivors to go through this ordeal, based on news reports and what the survivors and their families told the media. As it stands, “Thirteen Lives” gives the bare minimum of screen time to the Thai people who suffered the most during this crisis.

Instead, the movie is all about giving the most screen time and praise to the British and Australian cave divers who volunteered their services, with Thai cave divers and Thai officials treated as supporting characters. Two middle-aged Brits in particular are spotlighted as the chief heroes: Rick Stanton (played by Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (played by Colin Farrell), two cave-diving friends who volunteered their services and sometimes have to battle against stubborn Thai officials who are skeptical of Rick’s and John’s ideas. “Thirteen Lives” shows more information about John’s family than any of the families of the trapped victims combined.

The crisis began on June 23, 2018, when the boys (who were all on the same soccer team) and the team’s assistant coach decided to spend some time exploring the cave in the afternoon. Located in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province, the cave stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles. Monsoon rain storms that were expected later that summer arrived earlier than expected and flooded the cave, thereby trapping the boys and their coach. “Thirteen Lives” gives only one child in the group anything resembling acknowledgement that he is an individual human being. His name in the movie is Chai (played by Pasakorn Hoyhon), but there is very little revealed about him or his personality.

Chai’s mother Buahom (played by Pattrakorn Tungsupakul) is the only parent of the 12 boys who has screen time that shows something that looks like individuality. She’s the only parent in “Thirteen Lives” who’s given specific scenes where she’s shown talking to rescue officials (often in angry frustration) to get the latest information on the search and rescue efforts. Before she finds out that Chai is trapped in a cave, Buahom mentions early on in the movie that she wishes that she could go to more of his soccer games, but she can’t because she has to work. That’s all the information that viewers will get about her.

“Thirteen Lives” makes Bauahom such a marginal role, viewers will have a hard time remembering if her first name was even said in the movie. It’s almost offensive how “Thirteen Lives” makes Bauahom the “token family member” and brushes aside all the other survivors’ family members who were in agony too. Any other family members shown in the movie are essentially background characters, with few of them having any lines of dialogue.

Meanwhile, “Thirteen Lives” gives plenty of time for viewers to get to know John (an information technology consultant) and Rick (a retired firefighter), both natives of England who share a passion for cave diving in their spare time. John is a happily married father who is shown at home with his family before and after he goes to Thailand for this rescue mission. Rick’s personal life is not shown, but he mentions at one point that he doesn’t like kids very much.

John tends to be optimistic. Rick tends to be pessimistic. The movie shows that it was John’s idea to contact Rick to be a part of this rescue mission after it made international news. The two men, who have been on-again/off-again close friends in their social circle of cave diving fanatics, consider themselves to be experts with years of experience diving in the types of caves where most people would not dare to go.

John’s and Rick’s names end up on a list of potential rescuers given to the Thai government when the Thai Navy SEALs find out almost all of the Thai Navy SEALs don’t have the training to dive in the type of cave where the boys and their coach are trapped. Thai officials and rescuers are put in the story as either helpful or not-very-helpful to what John and Rick want to do. Expect to see trite and predictable scenes of language barriers and egos having an effect on any tension-filled communication between the non-Thai people and the Thai people.

Vern Unsworth (played by Lewis Fitz-Gerald) is another Brit cave diver who’s on the scene because he’s very familiar with the cave. He’s in his 60s and is more experienced than John and Rick when it comes to knowing about Thai government politics. He tells his fellow Brits that Governor Narongsak (played by Sahajak Boonthanakit) is on his way out of office, but the governor was asked to stay on the job during this cave crisis, “in case they need a fall guy” if anyone dies.

Other rescue cave divers who make appearances include Thai Navy SEALs named Commander Kiet (played by Thira Chutikul), Suman (played Sukollawat Kanarot) and Pichai (played by Bernard Sam), who are all written as very generic characters. If you know what happened in real life, then you know that one of these Thai Navy SEALs heroically died during this rescue. (His death and funeral are depicted in “Thirteen Lives.”) One of the rescue cave divers is a Thai medical professional named Dr. Karn (played by Popetorn Soonthornyanakij), who can speak Thai and English.

Other military officials depicted in “Thirteen Lives” include Thailand’s minister of interior General Anupong (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) and the U.S. Air Force’s Major Hodges (played by Josh Helman) and Captain Olivia Taft (played by Zahra Newman), who is the token female military character to have a speaking role in the movie. All of these supporting roles are written as ultimately following what John and Rick want to do. Because most people watching this movie already know the real-life outcome of this rescue mission, there’s no real suspense in any of these decision-making conflicts.

There are two other Westerners who end up featuring prominently in “Thirteen Lives” as rescuers: British Cave Rescue Council member Chris Jewell (played by Tom Bateman) has the role of the strapping young cave diver who is supposed to be less experienced than John and Rick. And then there’s anesthesiologist Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris (played by Joel Edgerton), an Australian who’s called on by Rick and John later in the movie to implement a radical and risky idea.

While all this political maneuvering and ego posturing is going on outside the cave, “Thirteen Lives” viewers get only the briefest of glimpses on what the trapped victims were experiencing inside the cave. There’s so much about their survival that was in the news in real life that was left out of “Thirteen Lives,” because apparently the filmmakers thought it was more important to have scenes of Rick and John moping around when they were both temporarily barred from being part of the search and rescue.

When Rick is part of the team that finds the boys and the coach, he has this to say in a private conversation with John: “I knew we’d find them. I didn’t expect to find them alive.” The movie is filled with maudlin dialogue. John and Rick show very little interest in knowing who the boys and the coach are, perhaps as a way not to get too personally involved with people who might die in the cave. In the movie, John and Rick are depicted as more concerned about their own reputations as cave divers and rescuers.

“Thirteen Lives” gives viewers only superficial snippets of what it took for these boys and their coach to survive under these extremely traumatic conditions. In one scene, the boys tell their rescuers that Coach Ek (played by Teeradon Supapunpinyo) instructed them to meditate and not let fear overtake them. The boys are depicted as stoic, with almost no filmmaker effort to put names to faces, except for Chai, who still has a non-descript personality.

Getting the trapped people out of the cave was complicated by the tricky and dangerous route to get to their location in the cave. Numerous people inside and outside the cave also had to keep diverting rain water to prevent more flooding. Therefore, it took several days after the survivors were found until they could be removed from the cave. All of this is depicted in “Thirteen Lives” in a very perfunctory, “by the numbers” manner, with little regard to what the people trapped inside the cave must have been feeling.

The stops and starts of this rescue also drag down “Thirteen Lives,” to the point where even the rescuers look bored at times. No one does a terrible acting performance in the movie, but “Thirteen Lives” is by no means going to win any major awards for its acting performances. And at an overly long total run time of nearly two-and-half-hours, “Thirteen Lives” would have greatly benefited from better editing. There are only so many times when viewers need to see clinical-looking timelines focusing on scowling Rick and worried John before it gets tedious very quickly.

While these two rescuers are brooding in their hotel or at the rescue camp, there’s a more urgent and compelling story inside the cave that’s shut out of this movie. If people expect “Thirteen Lives” to give fascinating or informative insight into what it’s like to survive while trapped in a flooded cave for 18 days with very little food and fresh water, then there will be viewer disappointment, because “Thirteen Lives” is not that movie. There’s a lot of information in the public domain about this survival story that the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers chose not to put in the movie. The messages that the trapped people sent to their loved ones get barely one or two minutes of screen time in “Thirteen Lives.”

Toward the end of the movie, there’s a brief flash of a message board displaying the photos of the 13 trapped victims, but no one ever says all of their individual names out loud in “Thirteen Lives,” even though these survivors are the movie’s namesakes. Only a few of their names are mentioned, but the movie gives no depictions of their individual personalities. Even if the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers couldn’t use the real-life names, they could have given viewers an empathetic sense of who these survivors are as people, but the “Thirteen Lives” filmmakers chose not to do that. This omission is a travesty and a major failing of “Thirteen Lives.”

The survivors’ family members are sidelined for most of the movie as mostly nameless, weeping and praying people whose anguish is given the Hollywood treatment. Their traumatic experiences are treated as a lot less important than pushing the narrative that the Thai people were ineffective in this crisis until non-Thai people came to the rescue with the best ideas and the best skill sets. Any teamwork shown in the movie is with a tone that the Westerners/non-Thai people are the superior ones on the team.

This real-life cave rescue has been the basis of several on-screen retellings of the story. In addition to “Thirteen Lives” and “The Rescue,” there’s the dramatic movie “The Cave,” which was originally released in Thailand in 2019, and is set for a theatrical and home video release in the U.S. (under the title “Cave Rescue”) via Lionsgate on August 5, 2022—the same date that “Thirteen Lives” premieres on Prime Video. Written and directed by Tom Waller, “The Cave”/”Cave Rescue” (which got mostly negative reviews) features a cast of little-known actors and some of the real-live cave divers portraying themselves. In addition, Netflix’s limited drama series “Thai Cave Rescue” is set to premiere on September 22, 2022.

While all these film and TV people are trying to cash in on this story, here are the names of the survivors of this crisis: Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong (the coach), Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan.

“Thirteen Lives” might not want viewers to know their individual names, but anyone who really cares about this true story should at least acknowledge that these survivors are people with their own individual lives, hopes and dreams. Their survival story is inspirational, but “Thirteen Lives” uses it as a cynical plot device. These survivors shouldn’t be mostly nameless and generic background characters to put in a Hollywood movie, in order to make other people look more important.

United Artists Releasing/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures will release “Thirteen Lives” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. Prime Video will premiere the movie on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘The Rescue’ (2021), starring Rick Stanton, John Volathen, Ben Svasti, Weerasak Kowsurat, Richard Harris, Vern Unsworth and Anupong Paochinda

July 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen in “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

“The Rescue” (2021)

Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Some language in Thai with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Rescue” features a group of Asian and white people (mostly rescue divers and military/government officials) discussing their involvement in the mission to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach, who were trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand, from June 23 to July 10, 2018.

Culture Clash: The rescuers had to overcome language barriers, cultural differences and conflicts over the best rescue methods in order to complete the mission. 

Culture Audience: “The Rescue” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching true “life or death” stories that are informative and emotionally stirring.

A scene from “The Rescue” (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

The documentary “The Rescue” is riveting and inspirational in its retelling of the rescue mission that saved 13 people trapped in a Thailand cave in 2018. Netflix bought the exclusive rights to get the stories of the people who were trapped in the cave and their families. Therefore, “The Rescue” mainly has the perspectives of the rescuers and some of the government officials who made crucial decisions that helped save the lives of all 13 people.

“The Rescue” was directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the husband-and-wife duo who won an Oscar for directing the 2018 documentary “Free Solo” about famed rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017. “The Rescue” isn’t as suspenseful as “Free Solo,” mainly because most people watching “The Rescue” already know the outcome of the rescue mission. “The Rescue” cinematography, although impressive, isn’t as visually stunning as the cinematography in “Free Solo.”

“The Rescue” has a mixture of exclusive interviews, news archival footage and recreations of the rescue mission by some of the people who were there. This recreated footage might not sit too well with documentary purists. However, without some visuals to accompany the stories told in the interviews, “The Rescue” would be a very dry documentary of mostly talking head interviews. It would somehow seem too trite to use animation to recreate the fascinating and monumental stories told in “The Rescue.” If “The Rescue” filmmakers wanted to have recreations in this documentary, live-action footage (rather than animation) was the better and more challenging choice.

The documentary’s quality is compromised, due to the lack of perspectives from the trapped victims and an over-reliance on recreated footage. “The Rescue” triumphs mostly as a fascinating true story of human resilience and compassion. This story is also a great example of people overcoming cultural differences for a shared cause.

The ordeal of the 13 people trapped in the cave began on June 23, 2018, when 12 boys (ranging in ages from 11 to 16) from a junior soccer team, along with the team’s assistant coach, entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. They wanted to celebrate the birthday of one of the boys and spend some time in the cave before expected monsoons started that summer. They didn’t know it at the time, but the monsoon rains would arrive earlier than expected, and the flooding would trap them in the cave, which stretches for 10,000 meters or 6.2 miles.

The 12 boys were Mongkhon “Mark” Bunpiam, Somphong “Pong” Chaiwong, Phonchai “Tee” Khamluang, Duangphet “Dom” Phromthep, Phiphat “Nick” Phothi, Phanumat “Mig” Saengdi, Adun “Dul” Sam-on, Phiraphat “Night” Somphiangchai, Prachak “Note” Sutham, Natthawut “Tern” Thakhamsong, Chanin “Titan” Wibunrungrueang and Ekkarat “Bew” Wongsukchan. The soccer coach was Ekkaphon “Eak” Kanthawong, a former monk. Kanthawong’s skills as a monk would come in handy in teaching the boys to stay calm in this crisis.

Members of the Thai Navy SEALs were among the first government-sanctioned rescuers. Thai Navy captain Anan Surawan comments, “I felt immense pressure. Everybody has high expectations when it comes to the Navy SEALs.” Royal Thai Navy rear admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew, who was the commander of the cave operations, says in the documentary that the first rescue unit had only 17 people.

Unfortunately, nearly all the Thai Navy SEALs were not trained to do the type of cave diving required for this rescue. Once this cave rescue made international headlines and it became obvious that more people were needed for this enormous mission, thousands of people from around the world offered their services. (The documentary mention that about 5,000 people in Thailand were involved in the rescue in some way.) The Thai government ended up getting a list of cave divers who were considered among the best in the world.

Although “The Rescue” certainly gives credit to the Thai officials who ended up making crucial decisions that resulted in all 13 people being saved, the documentary makes the biggest heroes and “experts” of this rescue mission to be the non-Thai civilians who came from other countries—specifically England and Australia—to offer their help. The teamwork between the Thai people and the non-Thai people was crucial to this successful mission, but the movie still has the tone that the non-Thai people deserved most of the praise and the glory. It’s a tone that will be a little off-putting to some viewers.

In “The Rescue,” viewers will get extensive personal histories and backgrounds of three Anglo rescuers in particular, all of whom all did cave diving as hobbies: retired fireman Rick Stanton (from England), information technology consultant John Volanthen (from England) and anesthesiologist Dr. Richard Harris (from Australia). They all describes themselves as daredevil cave divers, who feel like they are in some ways society misfits because most people think their passion for cave diving is obsessive.

“The Rescue” goes so deep into the personal histories of Stanton and Harris, their respective wives (Amp Bangnoen for Stanton, Dr. Fiona Harris for Richard Harris) are interviewed, even though the wives were not directly involved in the rescue mission. “The Rescue” also details Stanton’s and Bangnoen’s courtship, which is extraneous information that veers a little too off-topic. The only other wife interviewed in the documentary is Waleeporn Gunan, the widow of Thai Navy petty officer Saman Gunan, who tragically died in the cave during this rescue mission.

Most of the cave divers interviewed in the documentary talk about the sense of independence, adventure and freedom they have when cave diving. Volanthen comments, “Cave diving, for me, is relaxing. Nobody tells you what to do. Your time is your own. It’s very liberating. Having said that, most of the time it’s jumping into a muddy hole.” Stanto adds, “It’s like being in space. The purest adventure you can have.”

Vern Unsworth, another British cave diver enthusiast who was part of the rescue team, had the advantage of diving in the cave long before the rescue mission took place. Unsworth, who’s a financial consultant by profession, says in the documentary: “I’d been involved heavily with the exploration of the cave. That’s why I became known locally as the crazy foreign caver.” Unsworth adds that with all due respect to the Thai Navy SEALs, “They’re a strong, disciplined outfit, but cave diving needs specific skills and specific types of equipment.”

In “The Rescue,” Unsworth is credited with giving General Anupong Paochinda (Thailand’s minister of the interior) a list of people whom Unsworth considered to be the best cave divers in the world. Stanton and Volanthen were two of the names on the list. At first, these non-Thai outsiders who volunteered their services got resistance from the Thai government, but as the situation got more desperate, the government became more open to listening to the suggestions of the expert cave divers who came from outside of Thailand.

It was soon determined that the rain water would have to be diverted, in order to prevent more flooding. For several days, the boys and their coach could not be found in the cave. And when they were found, the biggest challenge was how to get them out safely, since all of the trapped people were not expert divers. Figuring out the best way to get them out alive took several more days until it actually happened.

A radical and risky idea was to give the rescued survivors a powerful anesthesia so that they would be rendered unconscious and therefore not panic while they were being carried out of the cave. Richard Harris had the enormous responsibility to oversee this anesthesia implementation. He admits in the documentary that he was very skeptical and frightened about this idea because of the high probability that it would result in fatalities.

Richard Harris doesn’t mince words when he remembers what he thought about this high-risk sedation: “It felt like euthanasia to me.” He adds that he struggled with the medical ethics of this dilemma until he was convinced that it was better to try this method than to do nothing. Doing nothing would mean certain death for the people trapped in the cave. Sadly, on the last day of the rescue, Richard Harris got the devastating news that his father had died.

Other rescue cave divers interviewed in the documentary include Chris Jewell, an information technology consultant from England; Jason Mallinson, a contractor from England; Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, a General Motors employee from Thailand; Thanet Natisri, a Thailand expatriate living in the United States; Josh Morris, a consultant from the United States; Ben Reymenants from Belgium; Jim Warny, an electrician from Belgium; Connor Roe from England; Josh Bratchley from England; and Mikko Paasi from Norway.

Thai officials interviewed include Thailand minister of the interior Paochinda; Royal Thai Army lieutenant general Bancha Duriyapunt; Weerasak Kowsurat (who was Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports in 2018); Suratin Chaichoomphu of the Thai Groundwater Association; Suratin honorary British consul Ben Svatsi; Mae Sai district mayor Somsak Kanakam; Royal Thai army colonel/chief of staff Singhanat Losuya; and Colonel Bhak Loharjun, the Royal Thai Army’s chief medical officer. Other documentary interviewees who were part of the rescue include Unsworth’s live-in girlfriend Tik Woranan; U.S. Air Force pararescuer sergeant Derek Anderson; and U.S. Air Force captain Mitch Torrel, a special tactics officer.

“The Rescue” (which has effective editing and a stirring musical score) tells this story in such vivid details, it’s almost as if viewers are watching it unfold all over again, from the perspectives of the people who were involved in the rescue mission. Still, these rescuers had the luxury of being able to leave the cave and get food, fresh water and proper shelter when they needed it. The people who were trapped in the cave did not have those privileges during their ordeal. And what it felt like for the survivors who were trapped in the cave is a story that will have to be told in another documentary that is not “The Rescue.”

National Geographic Documentary Films and Greenwich Entertainment released “The Rescue” in select U.S. cinemas on October 8, 2021. Disney+ premiered the movie on December 3, 2021.

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