This review of The 33 contains spoilers.
The 33 recreates the true story of the 2010 Chilean mining accident, in which 33 men were trapped 2300 feet below the ground for 69 days after the ancient San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert collapsed. It is in fact a remarkable tale, and it’s hard to say whether your enjoyment of the movie will be affected by whether you followed the news and know the actual outcome. But as a film on its own terms, The 33 is a mixed bag of part inspirational human drama, part Lifetime movie of the week, and part Irwin Allen disaster flick. It’s a film that shamelessly tries to push your emotional buttons but succeeds only intermittently.
The movie opens above ground with foreman Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips) warning the mine manager that there is evidence of instability down in the depths. But that copper and gold has to be excavated anyway, and the money has to flow, so down the men go after a brief picnic sequence in which we are perfunctorily introduced to a good chunk of them. Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) is a happy-go-lucky family man with a zest for life; another fellow is young and recently married with a baby on the way; a third (Juan Pablo Raba) is an alcoholic who is estranged from his sister (Juliette Binoche). There’s also the obligatory miner who is working one last shift before he retires, the obligatory stranger (in this case a Bolivian import), and so on.
That’s about all the characterization we get before the mine comes crumbling down in a sequence that director Patricia Riggen effectively stages for maximum tension and fear. The chaos and panic of the scene – as thousands of tons of tumbling rocks chase the men deeper into the mine, and into an underground basecamp known as “the refuge” – soon gives away to disquiet as paranoia and terror bubble up and the men realize just how seemingly hopeless their predicament is. With Luis in despair, Mario steps up and becomes the leader, rationing out their remaining food and trying to keep the men’s spirits up.
Meanwhile on the surface, the president of Chile (Bob Gunton) at first intends for the government to stay out of the situation, until the new Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), somewhat cynically reminds him just how bad that might look politically, especially with the familes of the men angrily massing outside the gates of the mine with the press right next to them. But Golborne’s concern is heartfelt and, despite some initial wariness, he eventually earns the families’ trust as he calls in every drill available as well as the country’s top engineer, Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), to mastermind the rescue operation – if they can even find the men’s location before they all starve to death.
It is the details of how the men survive, as well as the “get the job done” work ethic of the rescuers above, that provide the best parts of The 33. There is an undeniable thrill of triumph as a drill bit finally pierces the ceiling of the men’s tomb-like sanctuary, or when the first of the miners ultimately emerges from the hole. But it’s also the “human interest” side stories that bog the film down and give it that TV-movie quality, since we simply don’t know these men well enough to be invested in anything else but the nuts and bolts of their survival and rescue. As well as Riggen directs that material, she also stages a cringeworthy sequence late in the movie when the men, eating the last of their rations, seem to all simultaneously share a dream in which their various loved ones (all dutiful women, of course) serve them their favorite meals. It’s laughable, especially when the Bolivian inexplicably conjures up a cow.
And that’s the way The 33 goes for its 128-minute running time: scenes of suspense and urgency punctuated with flatly handled emotional grabs. There are a number of things to like here, including Banderas’ impassioned performance as Mario (who was labeled “Super Mario”), Santoro’s humane Golborne and the production design, which turns the mine into a labyrinth of light and shadow and effectively captures the sense of all that weight hanging above the miners’s heads. Less effective are a clock-punching Byrne — whose task seems to be delivering a mouthful of expostion, capped with a warning about how bad the situation is, over and over again – and James Brolin, who says about three lines as a U.S. engineer who, in typically American fashion, brings in the biggest drill of all to make the hole that the men are finally lifted out of.
And yes, here’s the big spoiler: all 33 miners survived, and the real guys assembled on a beach at the end of the film for a black and white montage in which each one gets his close-up. It’s now the standard biopic closer to show us images of the real person or persons before the end credits, but by giving each of these remarkable men his own moment on the big screen, The 33 reminds us just how little we actually have come to know them.
The 33 is out in theaters this Friday (Nov. 13).