Can a feature film about the Thai cave drama top the amazing 2021 documentary?

Thirteen lives.

World news has its own laws. In the last century – the era when newspapers ruled – there was a (rather cynical) journalistic rule of thumb: number of deaths divided by distance. Seen from the west, that is. In short: a thousand kilometers away two dead? Not a piece in the newspaper. A thousand kilometers away, two hundred dead? It comes pretty close. For example, not all mine disasters in Chile, overturned ferry in Bangladesh or bombings in Beirut made the world news.

Since the rise of news outlets like CNN and social media, a new factor has been added: emotion. Using dramaturgical laws – tension building, cliffhangers, reactions – events are presented as reality soaps. We can identify with it much better than with a cold number. Reality TV goes around the world with ease. The distance no longer matters, it becomes BREAKING NEWS.


An example is the saga of the Thai youth soccer team De Wilde Zwijnen, who were trapped in the underground system of Tham Luang (“the big cave”) in northern Thailand on June 23, 2018. First, they got a good workout with their coach Ekapol ‘Aek’ Chanthawong, who is also only 25. Because it was Chai, the youngest of the pair, a cheerful team outing ensued: romp in the cave, a tourist attraction in the region.

But the monsoon unexpectedly failed early that year. In an instant, they flooded mile-long cave complexes and the boys – aged 11 to 16, still children – were trapped like rats. Their mountain bikes were neatly parked at the entrance, but it was doubtful they would ever be picked up again.

Director Ron Howard.  Image Getty Images

Director Ron Howard.Image Getty Images

In the pouring rain, a massive international rescue operation involving thousands of volunteers was launched. It would last no less than eighteen days, and because of the tension that could be cut, camera crews from all over the world appeared at the scene of the rising disaster waters.

The whole planet lived with it. Emo TV in its purest form, which came roaring into the living room. And it was really nice that everything went fantastically well. Soon the rescue was being talked about as a symbol of hope in a troubled world. It was unfortunate that two of the Thai divers eventually lost their lives.

Even afterwards, it remains a heroic story. This was understood by the documentary producers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, who made the reconstruction of The Rescue for National Geographic in 2021. A 107-minute documentary distributed at many festivals and good for four stars in de Volkskrant. With the main conclusion: what else could a feature film add to this well-crafted story, as told by those involved?

We now get the answer to that question. Hollywood director Ron Howard took up the gauntlet and presents his feature film Thirteen Lives on Amazon Prime Video this week. It is hardly a surprise that he chose this subject. Ron Howard (68) chopped with this ax early in his career.

In 1991, he came up with the creditworthy back draft, an action thriller about firefighters. And a highlight of his work is Apollo 13 (1995), the dramatized version of the space flight that just ended in disaster. Survival in outer space. Starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as the doomed Apollo crew, the film won two Oscars and is still considered Howard’s best work among film fans.

Thirteen lives.  Picture

Thirteen lives.

Thanks to his reputation, Howard was able to embark on his new survival adventure Thirteen lives once again calls for A-list actors, with Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell as (also in reality) flown-in British frogmen Richard Stanton and John Volanthen. Joel Edgerton plays Australian diver and anesthesiologist Richard Harris, who found the key to the rescue with a plan as risky as it was bold. His remarkable approach: ‘Put the boys on goggles with an oxygen tube and render them unconscious for a short time with a syringe.’ This would make it easier for the divers to lead them back to the outside world through all these caves.


Provided: you feel it Thirteen lives made with love. It is a claustrophobic experience for the viewer in the cramped, flooded caves with the helpless soccer players on their underground rock.

To prevent them from panicking, coach and former Buddhist monk Aek (Teeradon Supapunpynio) taught them meditation techniques: ‘Close your eyes. Breathe in, breathe out’ – and apparently it works. When, after nine days, the frogs have physical contact with the football team for the first time, you can say that, given the circumstances, they are having a fantastic time.

Meanwhile, the movie stars are not heroes, on the contrary, the whole rescue plan is tied together. Adding to the tension is the fact that the mild-mannered Governor Narongsak, who is to oversee the operation, had actually already been fired by the military authorities. These are not nice guys: ‘Generals don’t take orders from civilians’, it is said several times to the assembled rescue workers.

The chaos that the massively assembled TV crews and crowds of concerned family members inadvertently create at the scene of the accident is also well illustrated – one thinks back to Billy Wilder’s media satire Ace in the Hole (1951). Howard has emphasized in interviews that he did not want to make a rescue film according to the well-known Hollywood formula (“white men come to do the job in a distant foreign country”).

It worked too. In his pictures, Howard pays attention to the local color, language and the role of Buddhism. However, as careful and humane as the result is, the dramatized feature film version of 2 hours and 17 minutes unfortunately does not add much to the documentary. The rescue in 107 minutes. Sometimes non-fiction just can’t be beat.

Thirteen lives can be seen on Amazon Prime Video from 5/8.


Even before the rescue operation was completed, the Thai director Tom Waller began writing a survival film that would eventually be called The Cave (2019). The trailer looked smart, but the rushed rush took its toll on the end result and the reviews weren’t kind. The Thai play of 104 minutes quickly fell into oblivion.

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