A life-affirming true story, with nerdy hobbyists doing what the military couldn’t, the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which a dozen smiley Thai schoolboys and their teacher were retrieved from certain underground doom, was bound for our cinemas from the moment the last child emerged alive from the cave.
Here it is, crafted with serious care and attention by veteran director Ron Howard, whose work with Apollo 13 and the Formula 1 drama Rush make him a safe pair of hands with such fact-based fare. Viggo Mortensen and a slimline Colin Farrell provide star quality as the western cave divers who channel their niche pastime into live-saving deeds, but they don’t hog too much of the limelight. Instead, Howard scrupulously and respectfully reserves space in the story for the Thai families, authorities and local religious leaders involved.
Then again, Thirteen Hours owes its overview approach to the media feeding frenzy that kicked in once the rescue was over: National Geographic bought the rights to the cave divers’ experiences for its thrilling documentary The Rescue. And Netflix secured the story of the schoolboy football team for its as-yet-untitled Thai-made limited series.
So, it’s unsurprising that the screenplay by Shadowlands writer William Nicholson gives us a bit of everything, while scrupulously avoiding the white-saviour angle after a team of Thai Navy SEALs prove unable to reach the stricken boys, lacking the special equipment or particular expertise of the middle-aged English geeks flown in for the job.
Mortensen steals the show as the cave diving guru only too ready with a voice-of-doom aside, while Farrell gets to register more emotional notes as a dad whose thoughts are never too far from his own young son back home.
It never quite does justice to the claustrophobic terror of these traumatic events
As in The Rescue, studio mock-ups are used to recreate the tight, water-filled tunnels that stand between the kids and salvation. The tension mounts, though having to deal with so many bodies does lessen the intensity over time, and without the piercing psychological insights provided by the actual divers themselves in The Rescue, it all feels a little soft-grained.
You can appreciate the effort, but this falls just short of doing justice to the emotional stakes and claustrophobic terror of the traumatic events themselves.
In select cinemas Jul 29, and streaming on Amazon Prime on Aug 5.