REVIEW: “The 33” – At times uplifting, mostly plays like a made-for-TV movie

Though it certainly has its moments of uplifting, inspiring verve, The 33 most often looks and sounds like an expensive made-for-TV dramatization. The film’s heart is certainly in the right place, as it brings to life in a very personal, intimate way both the struggle for survival of the 33 Chilean miners trapped 700 meters below ground for 69 days in late 2010, as well as the ordeal of the miners’ families as they clung to hope day after agonizing day. But in terms of execution, the film’s script is often heavy-handed, and the performances of its leads prove wildly uneven. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s one that should have been better.

August 5th, 2010 begins much like any other day for the men who made their daily living bringing gold and copper up from the depths of the San Jose copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Led by their shift foreman, “Don Lucho” Luis Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips), the crew that makes its way into the mine includes devoted family man Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), avid Elvis Presley enthusiast Edison “Elvis” Peña (Jacob Vargas), town philanderer Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez), troubled alcoholic Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), Bolivian national Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), former professional footballer Franklin Lobos (Alejandro Goic), Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), the eldest of the miners, two weeks from his retirement, and the group’s youngest, Alex Vega (Mario Casas), whose along with his wife Jessica (Cote de Pablo) are expectant parents.

Not long after the team sets to work, the ancient mine, which for months Don Lucho had reported to its owners was unsafe due to the mountain being unstable and proper safety precautions such as ladders up the mine’s ventilation shafts not being complete, suffers a massive rock fall. A solid mass of rock twice the size and weight of the Empire State Building shifts within the mountain and comes crashing down between the miners and the tunnels that are their only way out. Don Lucho gathers the group inside “The Refuge”, an emergency space in the deepest part of the mine where food and medical supplies are kept, and prepares them for the worst, as he knows the stores they have there will sustain them for three days at best. But Sepúlveda refuses to accept their fate, and works hard to rally the men and keep their spirits high.

Meanwhile, on the surface, Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) convinces the nation’s president, Sebastián Piñera (Bob Gunton), that the government should respond and lead the rescue efforts, however slim the chances are for success. Once on site, he finds himself face to face with an angry mob comprised of the miners’ families, who have been kept in the dark about the fate of their loved ones by the mine owners. Among them is Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), Dario’s elder sister, whose voice is the loudest in denouncing the mine owners’ silence and challenging the government’s sincerity when Laurence pledges to do everything possible to rescue the survivors.

Laurence, however, does prove true to his word, staying on site and acting as a liaison between the families and the rescue efforts as teams of engineers and massive drills are brought in to bore into the mountain in an effort to reach the 33. He also provides the means for the families to build a tent city on the outskirts of the mine site, so that they can stay close to the rescue efforts while keeping their children in school and maintaining a semblance of normal life.

But everyone above and below the surface knows just how close to impossible the task in front of them is. As days and weeks pass, maintaining hope in the face of growing obstacles and time running out proves just as daunting a challenge to overcome as the tons of rock separating the 33 from their freedom, and the question becomes just how far will everyone go in their efforts before they surrender to what seems to be inevitable.

The 33 one sheet

In terms of what works in The 33, the production proves very effective in its efforts to depict the terrifying mine collapse and the claustrophobic conditions in which the miners managed to survive. The rock fall sequence comes fairly early on in the film, and the way it’s brought to life truly drives home how fortunate the men were to survive that initial catastrophe at all. Production design above ground is equally impressive, with the recreation of “Camp Esperanza” and the varied efforts of the government’s rescue operation and the challenges they faced depicted clearly, albeit with much exposition in the script. In short, where The 33 does excel as a film is in recreating the experience of being in midst of that tense and emotional scene for weeks on end, and all the many difficulties faced by everyone involved.

Where the film falls short is in terms of the script and director Patricia Riggan’s very approach to the material, which is as conventional and safe as it comes and as such results in a fairly predictable and occasionally saccharine film. Of course, it makes sense that the production is a relatively “safe” one in terms of its storytelling, as all involved have to be mindful of the 33 families to whom the film is beholden for its story, and just how close in recent memory and well documented these events truly were. But still, aside from some jarring tonal shifts — there’s a very odd and jarring dream-like sequence that plays out like a shared mirage experienced by the miners during their most desperate hours, to name one example — any savvy movie goer familiar with the progression of how survival dramas work on film can and will spot the tropes at work here, which invariably takes away from immersion in the story and its drama.

In terms of actor performances in The 33, the work turned in here by Antonio Banderas runs in parallel to the film itself in terms of its highs and lows. Portraying the man who came to be known throughout Chile and around the world as “Super Mario” Sepulveda for the energy and humor he displayed in the video journals sent to the media on the surface once rescuers established contact with the miners, Banderas’ depiction, particularly in moments meant to convey high tension, freely crosses the line into hammy territory. The script doesn’t do him any favors — when you’re asked to deliver such groaners as “That was the heart of the mountain. She finally broke,” and “I believe we’ll make it out of here because I CHOOSE to believe it! All 33 of us!” without laughing, well, it’s clearly not an easy task. In quieter, lighter, and less pensive moments, on the other hand, Banderas’ easy, playful charm and charisma works well in terms of selling just how this man came to be the beating heart of the group’s survival effort.

In comparison, Juliette Binoche is a steady and rock solid presence throughout the film as the formidable but flawed Maria, but she’s simply not in the film enough for her work to balance out the other actors’ uneven contributions. Plus, the presence of such non-Hispanic performers as Bob Gunton and Gabriel Byrne in such prominent roles here proves to be nothing but distracting, and don’t be fooled by veteran actor James Brolin’s high placement in the cast billing. Brolin’s is little more than a cameo appearance with a handful of lines of dialogue that are mostly engineering techno-babble. As for Santoro, ostensibly the film’s third lead and protagonist, he’s as underwritten and bland as bland gets. He may not miss all the body paint and piercings that made him so memorable in the 300 films, but audiences sure will, seeing him have so little fun here.

All that said, by the end of The 33 it’s tough not to walk out smiling at least a little, considering that this really is one of those amazing true-life stories that did have a happy ending and whose legacy is one of positive values such as loyalty, brotherhood, and perseverance. Again, it’s not a bad film, by any means, and most likely if you give it a chance and you don’t nitpick individual performances and line reads, you can enjoy it for what it is.

But make no mistake, considering just how compelling this story was when it played out on CNN and world news sources for those two months in 2010, and how the world as a whole celebrated when the story came to a triumphant end, the film version could have been, and should have been, much better.

The 33
Starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, with Bob Gunton and Gabriel Byrne. Directed by Patricia Riggen.
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.