Most summers bring with them news of some have-a-go hero, an ordinary fellow plucked from the quiet of a suburban patch who performs a feat of noble derring-do. The quiet of the holiday period tends to push more eccentric stories to the fore: silly season, they call it on the news desk. It’s a time when world leaders like to ramble off on holiday and leave politicking for the beach. For many, the influx of headlines, about, say, some weird nesting bird rediscovered in the Pennines, are a welcome reprieve from the relentless drone of misery and malcontent.
Not much chance of escape this year, however, as Europe bakes under record temperatures, plants shrivel in our back gardens and wildfires sweep the skies. As I sat on a beach last week watching a helicopter bailing water out of the ocean to extinguish a second wildfire near Trieste in as many weeks, I wondered whether silly season is now itself endangered? And where the good news went.
Instead we’ve had to rely on Hollywood to bring the jollies this year with a retelling of a good news story from the past: the 2018 rescue of the Wild Boars football team and their coach, stranded for 18 days in the Tham Luang cave in Thailand when the labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels was flooded by early monsoon rains. Now turned into a $55mn movie directed by Ron Howard, Thirteen Lives follows a number of previous interpretations of the story, including the Bafta-nominated documentary The Rescue, made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and a Thai-produced dramatisation from 2019 called The Cave.
The Rescue, with its careful recreations and poignant interviews, was one of the most affecting films I watched last winter, and I was sceptical as to how this virtuoso piece of film-making, in which the directors spoke to the people who actually participated in the rescue, could possibly be improved. That Howard’s uniquely “authentic” adherence to the story required him to rebuild large parts of the Tham Luang cave network as a set in Queensland seemed preposterous. As did the announcement that the motley company of cave divers who masterminded the evacuation would be played by an all-star cast.
But such is the Hollywood treatment and, it turns out, I loved every frame. Joel Edgerton and Viggo Mortensen play the cave divers Richard Harris and Richard Stanton with just the right degree of plain-spoken humility as to seem entirely plausible as regular dudes who happen to have the perfect skillset. Likewise Colin Farrell, an actor with the looks of an Adonis who can radiate masculine vulnerability like no other actor on the screen.
Even the action, now familiar to those who have tracked every iteration of the rescue, was gripping: a white-knuckle endeavour of quite breathtaking risk. Howard’s directorial decisions, so laboured and portentous in films like A Beautiful Mind or Apollo 13 seemed fresh and less encumbered. He even manages, just about, to move the drama away from the white saviour narrative that often dominates such stories by acknowledging the gigantic effort and sacrifice made by the community in assisting the rescue outside the cave.
Still, it will seem perverse to many people that a story that has been so well told in documentary footage, and so recently, should have required such an inflated, extravagant retelling. It follows an odd trend in entertainment where hit documentaries are now broadcast almost concurrently with their fictional dramatisations, such as The Staircase, The People v OJ Simpson, and the podcast The Dropout, which became a Hulu drama starring Amanda Seyfried as Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Rare are the instances in which the basic precepts of the story are improved upon; in fact, I don’t think I preferred any of the above adaptations to the source material which inspired them. Although I did relish watching Seyfried lock her jaw into Holmes’s famous grimace, just as I was intrigued to watch Colin Firth as the vain, priapic Michael Peterson, the author who was convicted in 2003 of murdering his second wife, Kathleen.
Does the drama become any deeper because an Oscar-winning actor gets to play “human” for a spell? Not remotely. But they can still be entertaining.
The story of the Thai cave rescue, however, transcends the normal treatments. Although it took place only a few years ago, it already harks back to a more generous, kinder, golden age: it unfurled in a pre-pandemic utopia, when the world was still being cordial, global diplomacy meant being co-operative, and taking the advice of experts was still considered a valid form of action. Those 18 days between June and July 2018 were a rare moment when communities came together, where hope triumphed over horrendous odds and a happy ending was achieved under the watch of the whole world.
No wonder every man and dog is trying to make their own Tham Luang rescue adaptation. It’s a story that amplifies our capacity for good. And whether it’s told via a gritty documentary or via Colin Farrell, with a ‘tache, in a custom-built studio in Queensland, it’s still one of the greatest stories ever told.
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FTWeekend Festival, London
Save the date for Saturday, September 3 to listen to Jo Ellison and over 100 authors, scientists, politicians, chefs, artists and journalists at Kenwood House Gardens, London. Choose from 10 tents packed with ideas and inspiration and an array of perspectives, featuring everything from debates to tastings, performances and more. Book your pass at ft.com/ftwf