'Thirteen Lives,' New Ron Howard Movie About Thai Cave Rescue, Great Opportunity to Remember Elon Musk is Dumbass

Guess what? Human ingenuity doesn't require advanced technology!

click to enlarge Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives - Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
Viggo Mortensen in Thirteen Lives

Thirteen Lives,
the gripping new Ron Howard movie that dramatizes the 2018 cave rescue of a Thai boys soccer team, is like other Ron Howard movies in that it depicts the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme environments and improbable odds. With the caveat that this sort of thing is my jam, I enjoyed it immensely. It's available streaming on Amazon Prime.

As in Howard's Apollo 13, the emotional force of the movie accumulates in almost imperceptible increments, as its runtime is dominated by the frankly insane technical aspects of the mission at hand. From start to finish, it takes place in the Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand, where 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped after flooding from a rainstorm, and in the surrounding camp, where thousands of local and international volunteers arrived to offer whatever aid they could over 18 grueling days. Among these were veteran rescue divers from the UK, Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), who were summoned by a local expat spelunker.

Having followed the drama only obliquely on social media as it unfolded in the summer of 2018, I was unaware of the scale of the rescue operation and the method by which the boys were saved. (I'd hate to spoil it if, like me, you weren't up on the details. But rest assured that it's wild!) I'll say only that the boys were not strong swimmers, and the submerged cavern network they were forced to traverse was so narrow and so harrowing — even the Thai NAVY Seals could not navigate the seven-hour+ route at first — and the timeline so compressed with water levels rising and a monsoon approaching, that bringing them out alive should have been impossible.

One of the few things about the story I'd been aware of at the time was that billionaire bozo Elon Musk was involved. He became something of a B-storyline in the actual event, proposing a high-tech "mini-submarine" constructed from SpaceX rocket tubes or something. He flew to Thailand with a team of engineers and a prototype of the vessel, which was never used. (The claustrophobic shots of the route's terrifying narrow sections convey well that a submarine escape simply would not have been feasible.) When Vernon Unsworth, the expat spelunker who brought in the rescue divers, called Musk's idea a "PR stunt" in a TV interview, Musk lashed out on Twitter, calling Unsworth a "pedo guy," which resulted in a defamation lawsuit. (It's embarrassing to admit, but these were the details to which I was most attuned in 2018.)

Mercifully, Musk and his minisub do not appear in Thirteen Lives.  And that's appropriate, as his participation was entirely a side show that had no bearing whatsoever on the fate of the soccer team.  The whole film, in fact, struck me as a profound rebuke to Musk and the Silicon Valley conception of ingenuity, which consists of society's appointed genius-heroes dreaming up increasingly sophisticated solutions to increasingly minor first-world problems. 

Human ingenuity, and indeed heroism, were everywhere in the 2018 rescue, but not the kind involving advanced technology.  It was stuff that Musk and many of his disciples might find corny: physical courage, self-sacrifice, resourcefulness, teamwork.  

And Ron Howard, the heartstring-puller behind 2005's Russell Crowe vehicle Cinderella Man, is certainly not shy about highlighting the everyday heroes who made the rescue possible. It was of course thanks to the divers themselves, without whose expertise and endurance, (and creativity, lest Musk monopolize "thinking outside the box"), the boys would have surely perished. But it was also thanks to the army of laborers who worked around the clock in the pouring rain on the side of the mountain above the caves, trying to divert  rainwater and forestall the rising currents below. It was thanks to nearby farmers, who allowed their annual crop to be destroyed by this diverted water to give the boys a better chance. It was thanks to the soccer coach, who in the depths of the Tham Luang Cave cheered and calmed his young charges, teaching them to meditate as they survived without food for 11 days before their first human contact. It was thanks to the hundreds of volunteers, who cooked meals and did laundry and ran errands for the rescue team. It was thanks to the Thai government employee who drove to Bangkok to buy an underwater face mask for the smallest boy, whose head was too small for the available gear and who would have drowned otherwise.

While this material is of course depicted to amaze and inspire — which:  mission accomplished — the tenor of the movie is not mawkish or even especially emotional. I can't even recall its score! Mortensen and Farrell look more like regular dudes than they ever have in their careers, and they tackle the ludicrous challenge before them with brave and straight faces, only privately despairing as they trouble-shoot their way to solutions, surrounded by people who simply refuse to give up.

With only minor elisions and additions, the Howard adaptation is faithful to events as they occurred. And what a joy to witness, what a boon and balm to have reaffirmed that one of the most miraculous rescues in human history owes its success not to one man lending his genius, but to hundreds of everyday folks lending a hand. 

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