An entertaining and earnest chronicle of the 33 with solid performances – one that is undercut by otherwise standard docudrama throughout.
On August 5th, 2010, 33 miners entered the San Jose copper-gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert – only to become trapped that afternoon when the 121-year old mine collapsed. Buried 2,300 feet under the earth, the miners managed to take shelter in a “refuge” room – which housed an emergency cache (rations and medical supplies). Unfortunately, the refuge room was meagerly stocked, and only intended to accommodate 30 workers, forcing the trapped miners, led by shift foreman Luis Urzúa (Lou Diamond Phillips) and Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), to carefully allocate food and water, extending their survival for as long as possible – in the fading hope of rescue.
Above ground, when news of the incident reaches Chilean Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) as well as the Chilean President Sebastián Piñera (Bob Gunton), the pair push forward with a rescue effort. However, given ongoing instability within the mine, as well as logistical challenges of locating, much less recovering the workers, the Chilean government must call upon engineers, medical professionals, and drilling teams to assist in one of the most complicated rescue attempts in world history.
Based on the book Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Los Angeles Times writer Héctor Tobar, The 33 was translated to the big screen by Mexican director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress). The San Jose mine story makes for a stirring docudrama, shedding light on what the 33 went through during their lengthy ordeal, with quality performances from the cast (both above and below ground). Still, even though Riggen succeeds in key aspects (especially in endearing audiences to the main players), The 33 is a spiceless biopic throughout – successful in retelling what happened but falling short in presenting such a remarkable story in a particularly imaginative or memorable way. In the end, viewers get an entertaining and earnest chronicle of the 33 with solid performances – one that is undercut by otherwise standard docudrama throughout.
As with most biopics, Riggen takes a lot of liberties with the real San Jose mine story – opting to reframe her tale around the 33’s most enigmatic survivor “Super” Mario Sepúlveda and Chilean government suit Laurence Golborne. This isn’t to say that Sepúlveda and Golborne weren’t instrumental in the rescue effort; yet, viewers who are looking for a definitive report will find that Riggen’s version often favors big screen drama and tidy character arcs over actual events. The filmmaker presents exaggerated versions of the situation and characters, which accentuate the life-or-death challenges of both the miners and engineers as well as larger motifs (sacrifice, brotherhood, and calm in the face of uncertainty), but plays fast-and-loose with history in the process.
To Riggen’s credit, the film depicts complicated relationships with a deft hand – many of The 33‘s best scenes occur in moments of tenderness, compassion, or shared grief between two characters. The filmmaker delivers a series of intriguing vignettes, teeming with biting sentiment, that are haphazardly stitched together with a cliff-noted account of the larger rescue effort. As a result, The 33 is a fluctuating experience that attempts to weave trials and tribulations of the titular mining team into a three-act story. That’s all to say, the film story succeeds in educating the audience on the situation as well as offering insight into the friendships, partnerships, and relationships that kept the 33 alive – albeit friendships, partnerships, and relationships that have been heavily fictionalized.
Antonia Banderas is charming as the film’s central protagonist, Sepúlveda, providing an affecting turn as The 33‘s de facto “leader” figure. Banderas operates at a level of enthusiasm and nuance that Riggen simply cannot match with the overarching story and technical execution in The 33 – at times undercutting the actor’s passionate performance with uneven edits and overly-dramatic takes that are at odds (with other, less experienced, actors in any given scene). Nevertheless, The 33 is a showcase for skilled performers – offering a spotlight to several latin american actors and actresses that, while familiar to viewers, may have previously been relegated to supporting roles.
Three-quarters of the miners (and their repetitive performers) are sidelined in favor of highlighting thematic archetypes but Lou Diamond Phillips as Luis “Don Lucho” Urzúa (a safety foreman who struggles with guilt and hopelessness), Mario Casas as Álex Vega (newlywed husband and expecting father), as well as Juan Pablo Raba as Darío Segovia (a shortsighted and bitter alcoholic), all provide relatable windows through which viewers can understand the 33’s shared experience – as well as the group dynamics (and commendable restraint) that kept the men alive.
Similarly, Juliette Binoche as María Segovia (Darío’s estranged sister), Kate del Castillo as Katty Valdivia (Sepúlveda’s wife) and Cote de Pablo as Jessica Vega (the mother of Mario’s unborn child), in combination with a thoughtful performance from Rodrigo Santoro at the Chilean Minister of Mining, serve as a life-pulse for Camp Hope – the temporary “tent” city and organization hub of family and friends (as well as the media and rescue personnel) outside the mine. Understandably, the miners take center stage but the drama, heartbreak, and hope above ground is responsible for several of the film’s most rousing scenes.
Earnest moments between the film’s characters will keep moviegoers invested but Riggen never sets the stage for more than a standard depiction of the San Jose mine disaster and rescue. For a movie about vulnerable men trapped half-a-mile underground, The 33 fails to convey a sense of claustrophobia or dread that would ensure viewers are present every second – a key piece that, in a more inventive adaptation, could have cut a sharp line between satisfactory docudrama and must-see movie experience. Instead, thanks to an inspiring source story, The 33 squeaks by as a rousing retelling of a real-life humanitarian victory – even though Riggen does little to elevate that story above standard biopic fare.
The 33 runs 127 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language. Now playing in theaters.
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