Ron Howard‘s Thirteen Lives–starring Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen as real-life divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, respectively–dramatizes the harrowing 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue. The event is remembered for having united people from all over the globe to achieve the improbable. With its dynamic editing and comprehensive, multifaceted breakdown of the rescue effort, Howard’s movie is a hymn to the same spirit of collaboration and creative thinking.
Doctors, engineers, government officials, Navy SEALs, and local community members all provide unique ways of looking at the same problem. It’s thrilling to watch people with different professions and competing hypotheses butt heads and resourcefully solve the various challenges comprising such a complex operation. Whether they’re set underwater, in outer space, or behind the gates of Bletchley Park, movies like Thirteen Lives make you want to run a marathon, solve integrals, or simply excel in some meaningful pursuit.
‘127 Hours’ (2010)
Danny Boylea‘s narratively daring adaptation of Aron Ralston’s memoir may not have a lot of collective brainstorming, but it’s no less a movie about resourcefulness under pressure than Thirteen Lives. James Francoin a performance that earned him his first and thus far only Oscar nomination, stars as the mountaineer who became famous for deliberately severing his own arm after a hiking accident left him, as the memoir’s title cheekily underscores, literally trapped between a rock and a hard place.
127 Hoursis largely confined to one location. Save for a few flashbacks that resemble heat-induced hallucinations, doesn’t dive Aron’s past and focuses mainly on how he adapts to life-threatening circumstances. Boyle’s flashy filmmaking sustains the movie’s energy even when it becomes repetitive. Whether you agree with Boyle’s narrative and visual decisions or not, Ralston’s experience will leave you shaken.
‘Apollo 13’ (1995)
Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Pullman play NASA astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, respectively, in Ron Howard’s beloved nail-biter about the aborted 1970 Apollo mission. What was supposed to be our third landing on the moon quickly turned into a desperate fight for survival when an oxygen tank burst after igniting a faulty wire.
Howard makes calculus and propulsion physics cinematically palatable, which is no easy task. nevertheless, Apollo 13hasn’t aged well and, at least by today’s standard, is excessively jingoistic. Crowd pleasing moments too often detract from the much more interesting logistic concerns at hand. Thankfully, the director’s new film has a very different approach to dramatizing a real-life crisis.
‘First Man’ (2018)
Damien Chazelle‘s third feature is a fantastic problem-solving movie. Like the Project Gemini recruits are told at the start of their training, the real work isn’t in the moonshot, but in the day-to-day challenges that must be solved before a lunar landing can even be attempted. First Man opts for the understated tone of a workplace drama over Apollo 13‘s unabashed sentimentality. It is foremost a movie about people doing a difficult and often thankless job, which is perhaps why some find it emotionally inert.
The sober, reserved approach to a subject that lends itself to sensationalism is, however, one of the movie’s primary strengths. After all, excitability never helps in stressful situations, and there were quite a few of those in the run-up to the moon landing. You can’t walk away from this film–with its rickety sound design and visceral space sequences conveying the number of things that could’ve gone wrong–and not have a newfound appreciation for the “one small leap” seen around the world .
‘The Imitation Game’ (2014)
Called upon to aid Great Britain’s war effort, polymath Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) must learn a sophisticated Nazi encryption device’s secrets while closely guarding his own from government officials inside Bletchley Park. It’s never less than exhilarating to watch Turing and his fellow cryptographers deliberate methodology and the ethical import of their actuarial decisions.
Turing remains a revered figure in scientific circles and pop culture for building the modern computer’s prototype and enduring discrimination at the hands of a government that benefited from his genius. The Imitation Gameis an engrossing tribute to both the man and his work.
‘The Martian’ (2015)
Feared dead and left on Mars by his team, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must survive the Red Planet and establish contact with Earth. Needless to say, Watney’s dire predicament presents an array of complex challenges for him to “science the shit out of”. Back home, experts in different fields are also brainstorming ways to retrieve the stranded botanist. Through trial and error, characters devise ingenious solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.
The reason The Martianworks so well is that it’s a jack-of-all-trades story told by one of the film industry’s finest, most pragmatic technicians. Ridley Scott directs a refreshingly funny survivalist thriller and a heartening vision of what international cooperation could look like in a crisis. How can you not love a movie that’s about the virtue of doing your math homework?
‘Only the Brave’ (2017)
before Joseph Kosinskic directed one of the biggest blockbusters of the past ten years, he made a relatively modest but no less effective film about wildland firefighters. starring Josh Brolin in a career best performance, Only the Brave tells the true story of the Arizona-based Granite Mountain Hotshots, the first ever municipal hotshot crew. if you think First Man is too stolid, this hard-hitting, fraternal melodrama may be more your speed.
Only the Brave is a classic underdog story. Constantly underestimated, Granite Mountain must prove it’s an elite unit by working harder and longer than everyone else. Of course, there’s also a redemption narrative, and that belongs to Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), an addict Brolin’s gruff crew chief takes under his wing. Even though the film’s main draw are the firefighting sequences, Only the Brave comes to life when its characters banter about relationships, parenthood, and bad music. The bonds forged by these men will renew your faith in our capacity to connect and collaborate with one another.
‘The Rescue’ (2021)
You can’t fully appreciate the breadth of what Ron Howard achieves recreating those eighteen days until you see actual footage from the site and hear the interviews given by Rick Stanton, John Volanthen, and Richard Harris (portrayed in Howard’s film by Joel Edgerton). Unfavorable comparisons of Thirteen Lives to the widely admired non-fiction treatment of the Tham Luang rescue overlook how well the two projects complement each other. The diverse share reflections they couldn’t have possibly had while experiencing the event in real time.
The Rescuealso highlights details that would’ve hindered the pace of Howard’s already expansive, 147-minute movie. A contingency plan to evacuate the divers from Thailand in the event of their judgment requires its own feature-length film to sufficiently explore. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how much of what’s in the documentary Howard does manage to include without compromising narrative flow.
‘Top Gun: Maverick’ (2022)
Top Gun: Maverick has resonated so widely in part because it’s about a group of competent people trying to achieve an impossible goal. The combination of camaraderie so central to director Joseph Kosinski’s Only the Brave and Tom Cruise‘s money—as well as his megalomaniacal commitment to visual verisimilitude—produces a uniquely rousing cinematic experience. The film’s production is in and of itself a breathtaking story about team-building and solving technical challenges.
For better or worse, encouraging people to follow their gut makes for a winning message, and Top Gun: Maverick has the “Don’t Think, Just Do” attitude in spades. It may be nostalgic schlock, but it’s nostalgic schlock with magically immersive aerial cinematography and two original pop songs that don’t make you immediately want to change the radio station. Even when you know you’re being emotionally manipulated, it’s tough not to crack a smile watching hardened opponents like Hangman (Glen Powell) and Rooster (Miles Teller), or Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Cyclone (Jon Hamm), put aside their differences for the sake of a shared purpose and earn each other’s admiration.
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