Thirteen Lives review – remarkable dramatisation of a true story

August 5, 2022 (Last updated: January 16, 2023)
Andy Punter 0
Amazon Prime, Film Reviews, Streaming Service


Ron Howard plays all the right notes in this retelling of the dramatic rescue of a boys’ football team from a flooded cave-in. 

This review of the Amazon original film Thirteen Lives does not contain spoilers.

An account of real events, Thirteen Lives on Prime Video tells the story of a boy’s football team trapped in a cave in Thailand for 18 days and the heroic attempt to rescue them…

It’s almost impossible to avoid comparisons between Thirteen Lives and Ron Howard’s Appollo Thirteen, another real-life tale of a heroic rescue against the odds. Both films share a sensibility (not to mention the same numerical title!) and stories of down-to-earth, clever people, forced to solve a seemingly impossible problem with the highest of stakes. Not so much a battle between good and evil, as a tussle between the strength of the human spirit and the overwhelming power of nature. 

Like most viewers will be, I was already familiar with this story, given the global coverage it generated in 2018. However, that I was already aware of the outcome did nothing to diminish the tension I felt whilst watching. Even though I knew that everything would work out okay in the end (with the notable exception of the Navy Seal that lost his life during the rescue) I was still perched firmly on the edge of my seat throughout. I was totally immersed from start to finish. 

That Howard is able to inspire this sort of response in spite of how well-known the story is, is a testament to the craftsmanship on display in Thirteen Lives. From the opening of the film, you get the comforting sense that you are in very capable and competent hands. This is a filmmaker at the peak of his powers and the decision to have large sections of the film subtitled whilst the actors speak Thai (unusual for such a mainstream Hollywood movie) is just one example of how confident the veteran director is with this sort of material.  

Ron Howard has been working more and more in documentaries in recent years and if not for the fact there already exists a fine documentary on this same event (The Rescue), one wonders if in a parallel universe this might have ended up in the same medium. As it is, Thirteen Lives works as a theatrical release with a script that contains the requisite twists and turns along the way and plenty of human drama. 

Among the host of fine performances in this ensemble, it is a real joy to see Colin Farrell (In Bruges, The Lobster) and Viggo Mortenson (Lord of the Rings, Green Book) do something really fresh. They play a pair of specialist cave rescue divers who head out to Thailand to lend a hand and end up being pivotal to the eventual success of the operation. Farrell, in particular, gives his character the sort of understated competence that you tend to only find in someone who voluntarily spends their free time in perilous conditions.

It would be easy for a Hollywood film, telling such a remarkable true story, to over sentimentalise the bravery of the boys or the heroics of the rescuers. Thirteen Lives avoids falling into this trap, maintaining an almost sober tone throughout. This smartly underscores that what makes stories like this so compelling is that this happened to ordinary people and ordinary people are capable of remarkable things. 

What did you think of the Amazon original film Thirteen Lives? Comment below.

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