Hollywood treats real stories like taffy to be pulled in any direction the screenwriter pleases.
The best recent example? The minds behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” played so fast and loose with Queen’s rock history the final act played out like fan fiction.
Director Ron Howard takes the opposite approach with “Thirteen Lives.”
Based on the remarkable rescue of children trapped in a Thai cave, the film treads very carefully with more than just the narrative in question. It avoids Hollywood histrionics, the kind that might land south of the truth but juice the story for maximum impact.
That approach is wise, respectful and clearly has its limits.
Twelve Thai children and their football coach take an ill-advised trip to the Tham Luang cave complex as the story opens. It’s an innocent way to extend their fun after a grueling match, but they quickly become trapped by flash flooding.
Monsoon season is about to start, and things will only get worse.
Thai divers and Navy SEALs rush to the rescue, but their efforts are thwarted by Mother Nature.
Enter John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen), British cave divers with experience in these tricky operations. They join the rescue mission, one that stretches day after excruciating day while the outside world prays for a miracle.
They’re given green and red lights by the local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) who knows his career is on the line if anyone dies during the rescue.
A director like Howard is the ideal choice for a tech-centric project like “Thirteen Lives,” at least on paper. He’s a master at visually dense narratives, be it in outer space (“Apollo 13”) or heroes trapped in burning buildings (“Backdraft”).
What he fails to do here, though, is build interesting characters on the periphery. We have that embattled Governor, a few concerned parents and even locals whose understanding of the terrain could help save the day.
None of them pop like Mortensen or Farrell, who bring the movie star charisma the project badly needs.
It’s all based on true events, but that may not stop the White Savior attacks from woke critics. They may have a point, though, in slamming the one-dimensional nature of the Thai characters.
Was screenwriter William Nicholson handcuffed by Identity Politics? It wouldn’t be the first time. Perhaps he feared showing locals as flawed or just complex without coming under fire.
As is, they’re forgettable as compared to the divers in question, a group which eventually includes Joel Edgerton. Even scenes showing parents at their wit’s end don’t emotionally connect as expected.
Farrell and Mortensen exude Everyman vibes as the reluctant heroes. Mortensen’s character is far more pragmatic about their chances, a nice clash between his partner’s optimistic spirit.
The nature of the rescue itself also prevents this from being a white-knuckle thriller. This rescue happens piece by piece, which reduces some of the tension.
Films like “The Descent” gave audiences a claustrophic sense that never quite materializes here. That’s a missed opportunity on a massive scale, and the blame falls squarely on Howard.
What’s more successful about “Thirteen Lives?” The cultural flourishes that show how Thailand is very different than the United States. The ever-present prayer circles, the unwillingness to cast blame at the first opportunity … the way the children deal with day after day of isolation.
Western culture embraces victimhood at every turn. Yet these hardscrabble kids knew what it takes to survive through the very worst of circumstances.
HiT or Miss: “Thirteen Lives” is smart, respectful and good enoguh to recommend but never sizzling enough to savor.