The film is a welcome return to form for Howard, containing all the makings of a competently crafted crowd-pleasing drama.
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When Howard focuses on the head-scratching mechanics of the mission itself, Thirteen Lives excels – and its many claustrophobic underwater scenes likely play excellently inside the confines of a darkened theatre. But by the time we’re in pure rescue mode, it is almost too late. What should be the highest of high-stakes dramas arrives with a drippy thud.
Told with no frills, less personality, and just enough quiet dignity to sustain itself for 18 days (or 147 minutes), Howard’s serviceable “Thirteen Lives” is a far cry from the kind of souped-up spectacle some of his Hollywood contemporaries might create out of this material. And yet, its let the story speak for itself approach feels misjudged in the aftermath of a documentary so rich with big personalities, knotted with stomach-churning suspense, and shadowed by a lingering sense of ethical ambivalence.
For its first half, Thirteen Lives feels like it is treading water, waiting for its big final act. Thankfully, the second half is a riveting depiction of a daring, foolhardy, inspired rescue.
It’s a restrained rendering of the events, a drama that plays, at times, like a documentary. But if Howard’s decision to spotlight the Thai characters in this harrowing narrative is a sound one, there’s an unfamiliar stiffness and self-consciousness in the director’s approach — an inability to marry the fast-paced, no-nonsense heroics that are his strong suit with more emotionally textured storytelling. The resulting awkwardness prevents the movie, for all the surreal tension and bravery it depicts, from feeling urgent or surprising.
[A] decent retelling of an amazing true-life story.
Howard’s film is a paean to the courage and canniness of the seasoned non-professional: subterranean heroism has never looked so down-to-earth.
You can appreciate the effort, but this falls just short of doing justice to the emotional stakes and claustrophobic terror of the traumatic events themselves.
Although it’s extremely competent, it fails to add a new perspective to the story, or a distinctive approach to its telling.