As an international incident is working its way through the news cycle, you can bet cracks are being made on social media about who will option the movie rights. In the particularly protracted case of the 2010 Chilean mining accident, such an adaptation could have been made and released before any of the miners were. It took 69 days and tens of millions of dollars to rescue the 33 men trapped deep within the San José mine, and the world took notice. Now, The 33 lets you revisit those long weeks of waiting in a comparatively comfortable two hours. No diamond cutter of insight, The 33 compresses details, events, and people into bite-sized doses of Based on a True Story uplift. Yet, there are flecks of gold to be found within this rich load of hooey.
Few out there would argue that attention spans have improved in the age of 24-hour news, so it’s not unreasonable to expect, or even appreciate a dramatization of the not-so-distant past. While The 33 has already enjoyed a successful run in the country intrinsically tied to its conception, the phrase “Chilean miners” has lost some of its cultural cache amongst North American viewers, who might need prompting about the events before remarking “oh, yeah, that thing.”
It’s very much to The 33’s detriment that this audience is the one it serves to please. A story that put Chile in the international spotlight has been thoroughly washed through the wringer of globalized filmmaking. The main cast, a mix of South American, North American, and European actors, spends the vast majority of the film speaking English. The famous note that the trapped workers greeted the world with, 18 days into their interment, is similarly Anglicized. Sure, Bob Gunton has been lauded when playing South American politicians, but whenever he appears as Chile’s president, or local newscasts are made en inglés, The 33’s thin bedrock of cultural identity cracks further.
From the very beginning, though, this loose adaptation of Héctor Tobar’s narrative account of those 69 days is dealing in broad strokes. This was inevitable: what transpired both above and below the cave-in involved too many names and too many days for a direct theatrical retelling. As such, storywriter José Rivera and a trio of screenwriters mold The 33 into a disaster flick instead of a docudrama, turning Antonio Banderas’ Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (the public face of The 33) into a steely-eyed miner man worthy of a blockbuster. This makes the movie’s usefulness as a historical record minimal, but its value as pop drama is a little sounder.
Opening her film with sweeping flybys of the Atacama Desert, director Patricia Riggen sets a captivating stage for The 33’s parade of stock character types. From the newbie on his first day, to the old-timer two weeks from retirement, you’re not given much reason to care about the men working the century-old San José mine before they’re cutoff from the outside world. All the better, then, that Riggen wastes no time in getting to the peril that made these men the most watched in the world. For as effectively as Riggen establishes the geography and terrestrial majesty of the mine’s 700-meter corkscrew into hell, she does just as well blowing it all up when the collapse occurs.
As the men underground try to stay alive using what meager supplies they have, and their families (led by Juliette Binoche) lobby beleaguered engineers and politicians topside, The 33 resembles a more emotionally hefty, subterranean The Martian. Much as it’s nice to see a survival drama treat its characters as human beings instead of sarcastic sentient calculators, the drama of The 33 proves as slow a grind as the actual rescue. Getting a feel for the morale of the workers and their families becomes impossible as days and weeks pass between scenes, and the narrative’s pockets of real tension run dry well before the halfway mark.
It falls to Riggen to keep your spirits up, and she does so admirably. One terrific minute of group hallucination turns comic relief into a brutal underlining of the miners’ most desperate hour. Banderas going eye-to-eye with the massive drill bit that first breaks through the rubble has the alien wonderment of first contact. Seeing as there’s half a deck of aces stuck in the hole, we’re often reminded of Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival when exploring the lively tent village that springs up around the worksite. By night, the Atacama recalls the lunar desert that Roy Scheider drove madly across in Sorcerer, and the disaster presaged by a windblown cigarette harkens back even further to The Wages of Fear.
Those last two films were cynical salutes to the guts and self-destruction of men forced to make a dangerous living. The 33, on the other hand, is an unimaginable trial repackaged into a feel-good nostalgia trip, paying unsatisfying lip service to what made the real story about much more than just 33 imperiled workers. The absurd conditions the miners were expected to work under, the PR circus that sprung up around them during and after the rescue, the political climate of Chile that forced the government to intervene: all scratched on the surface by The 33, but no deeper.
Though it's not a great film by any means, director Patricia Riggen extracts a fair few moments of inspiration and brilliance from the mountain of sanitized mush that is The 33.