Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Thirteen Lives

Ron Howard and true-life stories are a match made in heaven. Instead of reshaping the true and the real into fiction while adapting it to the innately fictional medium of film, Howard takes stories like this one—where a soccer team from Thailand gets trapped miles inside a cave when an unexpected rainstorm causes it to flood—and showcases what is already astonishing about the true story. 

As a rule, I don't care for movie based on true stories. Ron Howard overcomes that rule.

He changes as little as he can. He doesn't push fake emotions. He doesn't add drama to the situation. He finds the subtle drama in the true moments and points a camera at it—highlighting the right moments in the right order to bring out the natural story arc and themes that are already there. And he hires actors who can show that nuance in a casual and honest way—like Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, playing two British rescue divers who fly in to lend a hand. Later they recruit Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman, and together they make an unfathomable plan to swim the boys out before monsoon season floods the entire cave.

My memory of when this happened in real life is brief. I heard they were trapped, and that people were working to get them out. Then a few weeks later I heard they'd been rescued, and I wondered why it took so long. Now, to see exactly how impossible the situation really was, and how great a feat it was that they all survived, how hard everyone worked, even the entire concept of how they were rescued—it completely blew my mind. I was still reeling from the fact that each day of swimming to the boys and back was a 12-hour dive when they threw out the rescue plan as the only and best option, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around everything it entailed.

There were many instances that made me protest aloud because of how crazy it all sounded.

People who are capable and willing to do difficult things astonish me. And I guess that's a universal thing. We have stories with heroes in fiction who do the impossible for a noble cause all the time. Superheroes, though, have superpowers. The men who swam hours and hours through muddy water in narrow tunnels just to have a chance at saving a few people they never knew—they were normal human beings. They simply had the drive, the skills, and the will to put themselves at risk for a good result. They did a job, and they looked at it as a job. And the movie understands that. It doesn't make them out as superheroes. It shows their weakness, and the mundane aspects of their humanity, and then it shows them do heroic things—impossible things—and then (and this is what I loved most about the movie) it shows how their experience affects them. 

The part that hit me the hardest was the first day they bring some of the boys out. The volunteers rush in and haul each kid away, leaving the diver alone and watching them go. Each actor they show do this has an incredible look on their face that tells of the physical and emotional gauntlet they had just come through, though they remained professional and stoic during the task. It absolutely broke my heart, and I love it because it wasn't shoved at me. Or slammed over my head. I just saw it. I know it was intentional, but the reservation of those moments is remarkable. Shown at a distance; not lingered on too long; or punctuated by overwrought music. You could almost think you're seeing something you're not meant to see. 

What must it be like, to volunteer your skills, your time, and your very person to become the difference between life and death for another human?

Any director can have style and flair, but it takes a master to create art that leaves no fingerprints. Howard's hand is invisible in this film, yet we still see what he's pointing to. Through his deft and discreet craftmanship, and cast full of equally dedicated performances, we get a beautifully nuanced glimpse of real-life heroes, and from the comfort of our homes, experience the mountain of hardships they willingly faced down for the chance to achieve something good. I'm grateful for men like that, and for the artists who, through their invisibility, make them visible.

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