(2015) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers/Alcon) Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuňez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviňo, Adriana Barraza, Kate del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Elizabeth De Razzo, Naomi Scott, Gustavo Agarita, Bob Gunton, Gabriel Byrne, Paulina Garcia. Directed by Patricia Riggen
One of the problems with bringing a real life event to the big screen, such as the sinking of the Titanic or the destruction of the Hindenburg is that everyone knows what’s about to transpire pretty much. For the mine collapse of the San Jose copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert on August 5, 2010 that trapped 33 miners miles below the surface for 69 days, most people are aware of how that turned out.
For most of the miners of the San Jose copper mine, August 5, 2010 was just another working day. After a retirement party for Mario Gomez (Agarita) who has just a few days to retire, Mario Sepulveda (Banderas), engineer Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Phillips), Elvis impersonator Edison Pena (Vargas), Dario Segovia (Raba), a homeless alcoholic and the devout Jose Henriquez (Treviňo) are among those who go down to earn their living, even though there are signs that something catastrophic was about to occur (and in real life, several miners had died and the mine owners repeatedly fined for poor safety conditions in the century-old mine).
Then a rock twice the size of the Empire State Building shifts and falls, burying the miners miles below the surface. When the 33 miners in the bowels of the earth reach their refuge, they discover that the medical supply cabinet is empty, the emergency food rations nearly so, and the telephone to the surface unconnected. The ladders in the ventilation shaft are also discovered to have never been completed. At first the miners take out their frustrations on foreman Urzua but Sepulveda’s level head prevails. They go about rationing the little food and water they have access to.
On the surface, the families of the miners, led by Maria Segovia (Binoche), the estranged sister of Dario, demand to be informed as to what is being done. The mining company, without the wherewithal to mount an expensive rescue operation, has decided to assume the men are dead and are making only token attempts to see if the miners are alive. The arrival of Chile’s Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne (Santoro) changes that; as he quickly discovers the lack of interest on the mining company’s part of getting their employees home alive, he takes charge of the rescue operation, with the blessing of Chilean President Piňera (Gunton) and with the assistance of mining engineer Andre Sougarret (Byrne).
In the meantime, things are looking dire in the mines as the first boreholes sent to the shelter miss their targets. However, once the miners are discovered alive and well, the gaze of the world turns to this compelling story in a small Chilean town.
Part of the problem with The 33 lies in its own title; there are 33 miners trapped underground and the movie can’t really spend a whole lot of time developing any of their characters. Throw in the families, political and media figures, the rescue teams including the one led by American Jeff Hart (Brolin) and it’s nearly impossible for director Riggen to give us a figure for the audience to latch onto, with the exception of the larger-than-life “Super Mario” who became a media darling in Chile during the actual event.
So a solid cast led by Banderas and Binoche, one of the most gifted actresses in the world, is left with frustratingly little to do other than occasionally mouthing a cliche meant to project their character’s role in the movie as comic relief, antagonist, love interest and so forth. Riggen has been criticized for this somewhat but to be fair I don’t think any director could have wrangled all of these characters and made them three dimensional unless she had a mini-series to do it with. Going back to Super Mario, during the movie there’s an incident when the miners turn on him because of his perceived favored status. One wonders if the actors in the film felt the same about Banderas who is really the only one of them who gets to make any sort of impression.
The rugged Chilean desert nicely contrasts with the mine scenes which were filmed in working mines in Columbia. They do capture nicely the flavor of being deep underground, although the sense of just how deep they were gets a little lost – in reality it would take the miners about an hour to reach the level they were trapped on from the surface, and of course an hour to return.
The movie glosses over some of the more disturbing aspects of the story, such as the mining company’s negligence or the absolutely disgraceful dismissal of their lawsuit three years after the disaster, or of the Chilean government’s opportunistic use of the miners to prop up their own sagging popularity. However, to be fair, the movie makes it clear that this was a defining moment in the history of Chile and that cannot be overlooked.
All in all, it’s an uplifting story that is a tribute to human endurance, the unmistakable power of hope, and the undeniable lure of bare masculine chests. I don’t know that the movie captured the true nature of what the miners endured – the second half of the movie there is almost zero tension because by that time supplies were making regular appearances down a tube from the surface, they had video communication with the surface and they made it seem less of a life-threatening situation than an endurance race. In the actual situation, there were serious doubts that the miners would survive – the unstable geological situation and the unknown performance of the rescue capsule were certainly question marks. Unfortunately, Riggen doesn’t really capture that adequately and maybe no director could have. After all, it’s no secret (and therefore not a spoiler) that all of the miners were rescued. That’s certainly the outcome we all wanted, but as dramatic cinema goes it doesn’t really stack up well.
REASONS TO GO: Inspiring. Plenty of beefcake.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks character development. Little tension since we know how it ended.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor profanity and a disaster sequence that might be a bit scary for young ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The final film to be scored by the late James Horner, who died in a plane crash two months before the movie’s release.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: October Sky
FINAL RATING: 6/10