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Thirteen Lives, a ‘realism’ masterpiece

During his illustrious career as a film director, American filmmaker Ron Howard has shown repeatedly that when it comes to telling stories of historic moments on the big screen few can capture emotion and life-changing moments the way he can. From ‘Apollo 13’ to ‘Frost/Nixon’, Howard’s eye for detail has proved the perfect way to capturing history for cinema.

By David Griffiths

Saturday 10 September 2022, 11:00AM

Thirteen Lives (2022). Image: IMDb

Thirteen Lives (2022). Image: IMDb

Now with Thirteen Lives Howard turns his attention to the 2018 Thai Cave disaster – a time when the world waited for baited breath as experts from around the world gathered to save the lives of 12 young soccer players and their coach. He treats the disaster with dignity and respect while managing to capture the raw emotion and suspense that the world went through during that time.

The film itself is told through the eyes of cave diving experts John Volanthen (Colin Farrell – S.W.A.T.) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen – The Lord of the Rings). It shows the moment when they first decided that they needed to travel to Thailand to lend their expertise and the frustration they went through when it felt to them that nobody was listening to the ideas that they were coming up with.

One of the most memorable parts of the movie is the time when Volanthen and Stanton meet with Australian doctor and experienced diver Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton – The Great Gatsby) and share with him an idea that many thought were dooming the thirteen to death.

The power of Thirteen Lives comes from the fact that Howard did everything that he could to make this film feel as natural as possible. There are no green screens and very little special effects throughout this film. Such was Howard’s push for realism that he made the entire cast learn how to scuba dive and then he placed them in similar circumstances to what the heroes went through during that time. So rigorous was the training and those scenes that there were reports coming from the set that some of the actors become quite traumatised by the experience and have vowed to never scuba dive again.

It is that realism that makes this film one of the films of 2022 that should not be missed. The scenes within the cave itself are suspense driven despite the fact that Ron Howard was extremely disappointed that he couldn’t make the water as dark as it really was because it would have meant that cinema audiences would not have been able to see anything on the screen. That aside though these scenes are eerily real and the result is a film like Titanic where despite the fact you know how the real events finished you sit for most of the film on the edge of your seat.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Thirteen Lives though is the fact that Howard as a filmmaker doesn’t sugar-coat any of the events. Buoyed on by screenwriter William Nicholson’s (Gladiator) screenplay the film shows the often overlooked parts of the tragedy from Stanton’s grumpy nature right through the small mistakes that very nearly resulted in catastrophe time and time again.


While Ron Howard certainly rises to the occasion, so do the actors in all the main roles. Colin Farrell and Virgo Mortensen are almost unrecognisable in their hard-hitting roles and it is easy to see while watching the film that these were roles that meant a lot to them. They are also well supported by Edgerton whose arrival in the film brings a new tone to the film such is the power of his performance.

While it is hard to believe that any filmmaker could have created a film that captures the events of this disaster to the same amount of power that we saw in the National Geographic documentary The Cave that was released last year, Ron Howard certainly manages to do that with Thirteen Lives. This is a brilliant film that needs to be viewed on the big screen.

Thirteen Lives is currently screening in Phuket and is rated ‘13’.

5/5 Stars 

David Griffiths has been working as a film and music reviewer for over 20 years. That time has seen him work in radio, television and in print. You can follow him at 

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Old guy | 16 September 2022 - 17:38:43

Wonder if Thailand will want Ron Howard to pay millions of baht in 20 years for publicizing Thailand. 

Old guy | 16 September 2022 - 17:35:21

@Christy  Don't know if you are correct, but I'd believe anything Ron Howard did vs. YouTube. 

christysweet | 15 September 2022 - 11:09:22

This  drama leaves out entirely Phuket's own  Ben Reymanents and Maksym Polejaka's extreme risk to find the way through the T junction AFTER the Brits declared it was useless and were giving up See the WHOLE story on You Tube  vid Thirteen Lost 


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