By Lynn Venhaus

Director Ron Howard knows how to tug on the heartstrings, and with its life-or-death scenario, “Thirteen Lives” is ready-made for an agonizing Hollywood adaptation – with a happy ending, of course.

In 2018, a rescue mission is assembled in Northern Thailand where a group of young boys and their soccer coach are trapped in a system of underground caves that are flooding. Based on true events.

Like he did in “Apollo 13,” Howard creates a suspenseful narrative out of a historical account where we know the outcome, but he keeps us enthralled, using William Nicholson’s gripping screenplay to build the against-the-odds story with palpable emotional heft.

The daring rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach captured the headlines in 2018 – dubbed the “Miracle in the Cave” by the global news media — and the world’s hearts.

If you are fuzzy on the particulars, the soccer players, after practice, went on an outing to explore a nearby elaborate system of caves called Tham Luang. During a storm, they became trapped. The Thai Navy, U.S. Navy Seals, and well-known cave divers combined their know-how for a daring rescue. The Thai government and international leaders take part in the plans.

Howard, Oscar winner for “A Beautiful Mind” and nominee for “Frost/Nixon,” has many moving parts here depicting the dangers of cave diving. It’s a remarkable physical feat working with those unstable natural elements – and the underwater scenes are genuinely harrowing.

Last year, in the inspiring documentary, “The Rescue,” filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi chronicled the story, using never-before-seen material and exclusive interviews.

They also conveyed the enormous outpouring of caring and compassion from the international community, which is necessary to show the scope.

Howard uses those same elements – survival, determination, and ingenuity, as portrayed by the actors. Viggo Mortensen is Rick Stanton and Colin Farrell is John Volanthen, the divers who were the first ones to spot the boys after 10 days.

They were joined by many people to help save the boys, and Joel Edgerton plays Dr. Harry Harris, the Australian diver and anesthesiologist who came up with a risky plan.  His reaction to the news that all the boys are fine will choke you up – such relief.

The actors make us feel the peril, and the claustrophobia ia seems overwhelming. Special mention to Tom Bateman as Chris Jewell as part of the British Cave Rescue Council and Paul Gleeson as Jason Mallinson, another diver flown in to help.

The danger mounts, the clock is ticking, and we hope the anguished parents have a good outcome before monsoon season arrives.

A large international cast, including many Thai characters, help with the realistic approach. Some subtitles are used for the families and government official characters.

Howard, who has been equally at home in comedy and drama since his first film in 1978, has helmed several outstanding documentaries during the past decade, including the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” “Pavarotti,” “Rebuilding Paradise” about California wildfires destroying a community, and most recently, the Emmy-nominated “We Feed People” about Jose Andres’ efforts through the World Central Kitchen.

So, giving this drama a documentary feel is natural. The tension ramps up with a thoughtful score by Benjamin Wallfisch, a frequent collaborator with Howard, who takes a pared down approach.

The cinematography of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is a marvel, and between the rising waters of the caves and the torrential rain, stunning craftsmanship.

If you’ve seen the documentary, you do feel like you’ve seen this before, but “Thirteen Lives” is a respectable exercise.

This film is another one of those compelling accounts that shows how people come together to overcome adversity. The real people of the “Miracle in the Cave,” are true heroes, and it’s impossible not to be moved.

“Thirteen Lives” is a 2022 action-drama based on true events and directed by Ron Howard. It stars Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, Joel Edgerton, Paul Gleeson and Tom Bateman. Rated PG-13 for some strong language and unsettling images, it runs 2 hours, 27 minutes. It opened in selected theaters on July 29, and began streaming on Amazon Prime beginning Aug. 5. Lynn’s Grade: B

On this President’s Day, let’s look back at the films centered around an American President, and what actors were best at portraying the Commander-in-Chief – be it fact or fiction. Here are some of my favorite dramas, comedies and even romances that included the most powerful leader of the free world. We are only listing theatrical films and the HBO film adaptation of “All the Way.”

If we included television, we’d have a wider pool, and that’s for another list. What are your favorites that spotlight our U.S. leader?

1. Lincoln (2012) — Daniel Day-Lewis not only delivers the best presidential portrayal ever on screen, but also one of the best male performances of all-time. Day-Lewis won his third Oscar, and it was never in doubt. Just a remarkable portrayal of Abe as a man struggling to hold the country together and lead them to higher ground. Director Steven Spielberg brought a humanity to the story rarely seen in historical portraits.

Kevin Kline in “Dave”

2. Dave (1993) — Kevin Kline is Dave Kovic, who is hired to impersonate the commander-in-chief when President Bill Mitchell suffers a stroke during an illicit affair.

A comedic take on an everyman winning over government wonks with his common sense, solidly directed by Ivan Reitman. Sigourney Weaver is a formidable First Lady.

Bruce Greenwood as “Thirteen Days”

3. Thirteen Days (2000) – President John F. Kennedy saved the day when we were on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a historical look back at this tense political time in 1962, through the perspective of White House assistant Kenneth P. O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), with Bruce Greenwood strong as JFK.

Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd in “The American President”

4. The American President (1995) – This is Aaron Sorkin’s idealism front and center before “The West Wing.”

Michael Douglas shines as a widowed president running for re-election who starts a romance with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening, but the political fallout affects their relationship.

Savvy script, smart casting (especially Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox as chief of staff and press secretary) make this Rob Reiner-helmed comedy-drama a memorable one.

Harrison Ford in “Air Force One”

5. Air Force One (1997) – Harrison Ford as kick-butt President James Marshall. Love it! The fit commander-in-chief is a Vietnam vet in this political action-thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen. A group of terrorists hijack the president’s plane and threaten the U.S. but our hero won’t let that happen on his watch. Glenn Close is the vice president and Gary Oldman the Russian bad guy, but it is Ford, in all his star power, as the take-charge head of state that made this movie one of the most successful of the ‘90s.

Anthony Hopkins as “Nixon”

6. Nixon (1995) – Anthony Hopkins embodied the beleaguered president during his tumultuous White House years, with Joan Allen riveting as his long-suffering wife Pat. Oliver Stone directed, so the agenda is clear.

Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”

7. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Frank Langella was Oscar-nominated as the disgraced Nixon seeking redemption in his four-part interviews with Britain’s David Frost in 1977. Ron Howard sharply directed the adaptation of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, with whip-smart movie script by the playwright.

8. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – Director John Ford teamed up with actor Henry Fonda for this look at honest Abe during his early years. Fonda embodies the heroic ideals of the lawyer and statesman who would become the 16th president of the United States.

Brian Cranston as LBJ

9. All the Way (2016) — Bryan Cranston won a well-deserved Tony Award for his masterful portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson during the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 2014 play by Robert Schenkkan.

This is the Emmy-nominated HBO adaptation, written by the playwright and directed by Jay Roach. Cranston is again uncanny as political animal LBJ, and the all-star cast includes Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover, Bradley Whitford as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson.

Jeff Bridges as the President and Christian Slater as a reporter in “The Contender”

10. The Contender (2000) — The wonderful Jeff Bridges is a likeable two-term Democratic President, Jackson Evans, who decides to break the glass ceiling and appoint a woman Vice-President after the current one dies.

However, his nominee, Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) gets entangled in vicious hearings with a bullseye on her back. This political thriller is written and directed by Rod Lurie, a former newspaper guy. Both Bridges and Allen were nominated for Oscars.

Emma Thompson and John Travolta as thinly veiled Hillary and Bill Clinton in “Primary Colors”

11. Primary Colors (1998) – John Travolta was at the top of his game portraying Jack Stanton, a charismatic Southern governor running for president. Recognize anyone? Based on the 1996  “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics” by Newsweek’s Joe Klein, this fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign had a crackerjack supporting cast (Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oscar nominee Kathy Bates), sharply directed by Mike Nichols and written by his former comedy partner Elaine May.

Tiki Sumpter and Parker Sawyer in “Southside with You”

12. Southside with You (2016) – A ‘what if’ movie that works, quirks and all, with its imagining of what Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama’s first date was like back when they were lawyers in Chicago. Written and directed by Richard Tanner, this little charmer comes alive when the nervous future two-term president shows off his oratory skills at a community meeting. Parker Sawyer is a genuinely believable Obama but Tika Sumpter really shines as the life force who would become First Lady Michelle Obama.

Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon in “Elvis and Nixon”

14. Elvis and Nixon (2016) – You may think this is preposterous, but this really did happen. And it’s one goofy movie. On Dec. 21, 1970, rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley went to the White House for a meeting with President Richard Nixon – and that historical photograph is the most requested one at the National Archives. Talk about offbeat casting — Michael Shannon is a different kind of Elvis while Kevin Spacey impersonates Nixon.

16. Independence Day (1996) – Bill Pullman is memorable President Thomas J. Whitmore facing an alien invasion, and his rallyng-all-Americans speech is one of the best-known in films.
Here is the transcript of that great speech:

President Whitmore:
Good morning. Good morning. In less than an hour aircrafts from here will join others from around the world and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind.
Mankind, that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the 4th of July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution but from annihilation.

We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist, and should we win today the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American President holiday but is the day when the world declared in one voice,

“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

This epic sci-fi disaster film made $817.4 million and won the Oscar for Best VIsual Effects.

17. Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” (2013) and 18. “White House Down” (2013) These aren’t films of particularly lasting impact but the casting of the presidents is genius.

In “The Butler,” Forest Whitaker plays a White House employee who serves multiple presidents  – and this casting is certainly eyebrow-raising:

Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Shreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and the most brilliant turn by Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (with Jane Fonda as Nancy!).

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx is the kick-ass president in the action thriller “White House Down,” which came out at the same time as the inferior “Olympus Has Fallen,” all about a terrorist group creating chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s terrific and a good match-up with Channing Tatum as a heroic Secret Serviceman.

Honorable Mentions: Oscar nominee Sam Rockwell is pitch-perfect as George W. Bush in “Vice” (2018), but he’s barely a supporting character. In Natalie Portman’s tour de force “Jackie,” Caspar Phillipson and John Carroll Lynch are effective portraying John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.