THIRTEEN LIVES (2022)

August 4, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. It is 2018 and a group of boys have just finished soccer practice. After some motivational words from their coach, the boys start joking around with one of their teammates who has a birthday party slated for later that day.  Boys being boys, they decide to bike over the local cave for some pre-party exploring. Their coach tags along to keep an eye on them. All of that sounds innocent enough until we realize this is the Tham Luang cave, and they don’t realize Thailand’s monsoon season is about to arrive early and with full force.

The film is directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, who is adept at mainstream storytelling as evidenced by APOLLO 13 (1994), A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), and CINDERELLA MAN (2005). The script was penned by William Nicholson (GLADIATOR, 2000) and Don MacPherson (THE AVENGERS, 1998), and tells the all-too-true story of the daring rescue mission that most of recall following on news reports. When the boys were no-shows for the birthday party, parents and friends rushed to the cave to find the bicycles, but not the 12 boys and their coach. Immediately, rescue efforts began with Thai Navy SEALS rushing to the sight. Cave diving is a unique skill practiced by only a few, and is much different than the open water diving in which the SEALS excel.

British cave divers John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) and Rick Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) are called in. Volanthen is the father of a son, and can’t help but empathize with what the parents must be going through, while Stanton is crusty old geezer who admits to not liking kids, while also understanding he’s one of the few on earth capable of making the necessary dive. Once the two men reach the stranded boys and coach, it becomes apparent that, as difficult and challenging it was to find the group, getting them out of the cave seems all but impossible. Death hung heavy over the operation of last resort, which included calling in Dr. Harry Harris (Joel Edgerton), a cave diving hobbyist, and more importantly, an anesthetist.

The diving scenes are expertly filmed by DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and underwater camera operator Tyrone Canning. The ever-present claustrophobia and risk of disaster underscores how courageous these men were. Director Howard offers up multiple perspectives: the government, the military, the divers, and the parents. We get very little from those trapped, but that adds to the tension. We get a feel for the entire operation as water is being pumped out of the cave, a water expert and volunteers frantically divert new rainwater into the rice fields, and political maneuvering occurs as the outgoing Governor (Sahajak Boonthankakit) is being set up as fall guy in case the efforts fail.

So many elements could have caused failure – low oxygen levels in the cave, a brisk current of water making diving more difficult, and obviously too much rainwater entering the cave would endanger the boys and the divers. The rescue mission lasted more than two weeks. It’s a disaster movie based on a real event, and follows up the excellent 2021 documentary, THE RESCUE. Evidently the dramatization is for those who don’t watch or have access to documentaries, and as strong as Howard’s movie is, there is simply no way for it to eclipse the documentary or what occurred in real time. At its best, the film offers tension and a reminder of what can be accomplished with collaboration.

Available on PRIME VIDEO beginning August 5, 2022

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UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.