Docudramas give audiences first-hand insight into intense, intimate moments of real people, disasters, and inspirational experiences. 

Usually tagged with the keyline “based on a true story,” these films bring viewers on a plane bound for the Hudson with Sully himself, on the deck of an exploding oil derrick in the middle of the sea in Deepwater Horizon or on a harrowing quest to free Americans trapped overseas in Argo.

While often docudramas focus on one or two individuals to showcase the larger event, Ron Howard’s latest film goes extremely wide to highlight the epic scale of people coming together to help prevent a tragedy. 

Thirteen Lives recreates the global effort to aid in the 2018 rescue of a boys’ soccer team trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave in Thailand. Working from a screenplay by William Nicholson, Howard’s film attacks the 18-day ordeal from a wide range of perspectives from the team themselves to their parents and Thai government officials to an international group of rescue divers. 

The scale of the effort is demonstrably clear throughout as the cast of characters plus extras must be in the hundreds. Despite this fact, Howard consistently keeps audiences oriented and in the moment so that it never feels overwhelming and the film’s 147-minute running time gives the director enough space to flesh out characters in multiple arenas. 

The drawback, however, is that in keeping things so wide open, it’s far easier to viewers to disengage from the story without a consistent character to identify with and endear to. 

There aren’t many recognizable stars throughout the first third of Thirteen Lives, and while the story clips along at a decent rate, it isn’t until Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen appear as British rescue divers volunteering to aid in the search that any real appreciable character work happens.

Most of the problem is in the screenplay, where individualism is kept to a minimum to maintain a broad scope and the only memorable Thai characters are the boy who asks to go into the cave before his birthday celebration and the governor forced to stay on and take the fall if disaster strikes.

Even the international dive team, played by famous character actors like Farrell and Joel Edgerton and an Oscar nominee in Mortensen, don’t really have a compelling story arc and any nuance to their personalities takes a backseat to moving the story forward.

The rescue itself takes the largest chunk of Thirteen Lives and the cinematography orients audiences well in the visual geography of the cave as divers make their way to the boys. This is further aided by graphics along the way that track the team’s progress into the cave although it becomes somewhat unnecessary in the final stage of the film after the same graphic has appeared many times. 

Audiences will definitely get a claustrophobic feeling at times thanks to the exceptional underwater cinematography from Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and the fantastic sound design that fully captures the horrifying audible terror of endless rushing water and the sinking feeling of drowning potential at any moment. 

In fact, if there’s any Oscar potential at all for Thirteen Lives, it’s likely to come in the sound category where the mastery of the technical element truly enhances the narrative as well as the audience experience. 

While Thirteen Lives enjoyed a limited release in theaters, it’s much better suited for its home watching experience on Amazon Prime, where it dropped last Friday. It’s a prime candidate for more episodic viewing in 20-30 minute chunks rather than all at once, where the scope feels a bit laboring.

Those who are particularly interested in the story will likely find last year’s exceptional documentary The Rescue from Oscar-winning directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin to be far more compelling cinematically and from a narrative perspective, though Thirteen Lives is a well composed feature docudrama that will help supplement the larger experience.

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