Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives,” a feat of endurance about the 18-day effort to rescue a youth soccer team from Thailand’s Tham Luang cave in 2018, gazes in awe at two unassuming men: Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, whom the actors Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell play with their magnetism dialed down until these charismatic movie stars resemble spit wads left to air-dry. The two rumpled and graying Brits don’t look or act notably heroic. “I don’t even like kids,” Rick says — thankfully not in front of the press, whose flashbulbs both men recoil from like photosensitive bats.
Yet, Rick and John are among the few cave divers with the physical and mental stamina to bear a six-hour scuba-suited spelunking through narrow crannies in next to no visibility as fanged stalactites scrape against their air tanks. No wonder neither they nor William Nicholson’s script, based on a story by him and Don MacPherson, have time for nonsense. This is a pragmatic recounting of a nigh-impossible mission: first, to find the trapped boys, and harder still, to swim them out.
Howard doesn’t waste energy seeding doubt about the outcome. (The operation succeeds, with two casualties.) He’s gripped by the mechanics of how the divers pulled it off, a feat that needs very little goosing from the composer Benjamin Wallfisch’s rattling cymbals to play like a thriller. Watching Rick and John’s team (which expands to include parts played by Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman and Paul Gleeson) swim back and forth towing the boys — “packages,” Rick calls them — is exhausting. The audience spends an hour of the running time experiencing the primal terror of being underground, underwater, and — in a detail left out of initial news reports — under sedation. Meanwhile, the sound designer Michael Fentum cannily ups the agony with every scrape of helmet on rock and panicked squeak of a cylinder running low on oxygen.
It’s a race against water, which thunders down into sinkholes that flood the cave and kick up dangerous currents. The cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom uses rain the way film noir uses shadows, creating a gloom that washes over the cast. A radio broadcast that monsoon season has hit the region ahead of schedule plays like that horror trope where doomed teenagers hear of a serial killer’s escape from prison.
The film’s villain, Howard implies, is climate change. As for its heroes, the real divers already publicly rejected that role, a demurral that dovetails with the movie’s chariness about reducing an event that involved 5,000 helpers from 17 countries into a white savior story. For balance, Howard includes the local governor (Sahajak Boonthanakit) pressed to make risky decisions, the irrigation engineer (Gerwin Widjaja) organizing a volunteer sandbag squadron, and a group of farmers led by Neungruthai Bungngern-Wynne who agree to destroy their crop for a dicey plan. This display of international unity feels like a thesis Howard doesn’t want to blurt: Wouldn’t it be swell if the planet teamed up to prevent environmental crises before more lives were in peril?
Focusing on the rescuers leaves scant time for the rescued. All we learn of the boys’ struggle is that their coach (Pattrakorn Tungsupakul), a former Buddhist monk, taught them meditation to conquer their fears. Naturally, one starts expecting their Zen practice to factor into the plot, for a child to wake up underwater and calm himself down. It doesn’t, and it’s uncertain if Howard left in that point as a dangling factoid or as a hint that the kids deserved more credit for their own survival.
Rated PG-13 for coarse language and creepy images. Running time: 2 hours 27 minutes. Watch on Amazon Prime.