The 33 (2015)

11/16/2015  By  Jordan Saïd     No comments

If you read news articles five years ago, you already know the story of The 33: thirty-three Chilean miners get trapped in the unstable San José mine. Author Héctor Tobar meticulously interviewed anyone he could find who was involved and made the results into a book, Deep Down Dark. Director Patricia Riggen’s adaptation, The 33, attempts to fit as much of the book into movie form as possible. The result feels overly complicated at times, but it makes an enthralling and emotional story out of the harrowing 69 days of the miners’ ordeal.

Antonio Banderas stars as Mario Sepúlveda, the most optimistic of the miners and their de facto leader. Mario’s friend and supervisor, Luis Urzúa (Lou Diamond Phillips), ends up trapped with him, despite knowing about its instability and lack of emergency precautions. Luis’s pleas to increase mine safety had fallen on deaf ears. As for the other miners, Álex Vega (Mario Casas) has health problems as well as a pregnant wife (Cote de Pablo) waiting for him. Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nunez) has a wife and a mistress waiting for him. Edison “Elvis” Peña (Jacob Vargas) and Darío Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba) take turns as the resident jerks, José Henríquez (Marco Treviño) leads prayers, Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita) has two weeks until retirement, and Carlos Mamami (Tenoch Huerta), a Bolivian rookie, serves as the outcast.

Gomez gets his retirement papers. Poor guy didn’t watch enough 80s cop movies to know what happens next.

Outside the mine, the families camp outside the fortified worksite, pressuring any officials they can find to do something. María Segovia (Juliette Binoche), Dario’s sister, leads this effort, mostly standing against the mining company’s intransigent apathy. Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile’s Mining Minister, proves the first sympathetic ear within the government, and he ends up the main force working on the outside to extract the miners. He frequently has to light fires under the people who can actually make a difference but give up too easily, including engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), lead driller Jeff Hart (James Brolin), and even Chile’s then-president, Sebastián Piñera (Bob Gunton).

As you can see, The 33 throws a lot at the viewer. Keeping track of it all becomes difficult, especially since the film takes a while to flesh out the miners as individuals. The 33 constitutes Riggen’s big break, her first wide-release American theatrical film. As such, Riggen seems to fear making the film’s story too simple, so she overcorrects by having too much going on.

The Bolivian says goodbye to the sun and hello to his outcast subplot.

The 33 reeks of pressure to appeal to American viewers. Riggen pulls a Hunt for Red October and has the Chilean characters all speak English throughout. James Horner’s score feels like something one would hear in one of Ron Howard’s schmaltzy dramas, like Backdraft. Sometimes the score almost feels like a voice screaming, “This is where you cry!!!” The screenplay clearly oversimplifies its characters. The outside characters in particular fall into very black-&-white camps: doggedly determined versus opportunistic or apathetic.

Laurence Golborne ‘18: Because I look like ridiculously handsome actor Rodrigo Santoro!

But the film certainly makes the characters easy to empathize with, even knowing how it ends. Maybe just for one second, you’ll find yourself thinking that they really won’t get out alive. Even as the miners start to look more pampered in the latter half, when supplies start getting through to them, one can’t help but feel happy for them that life got a little easier down in that hell hole. The final climax uses the film’s built-up empathy to its advantage.

The 33’s drama almost conceals its core point: the amount of assistance the miners received proved directly proportional to the number of major media outlets interested in the story. Pretty much every character except the miners’ families initially wrote them off as dead men walking. But once the story breaks through to major media outlets, the men become celebrities living hundreds of feet under a shanty town in their honor. The idea of a successful extraction starts as the families’ dream and ends as the entire world’s expectation.

Brian Williams also appears. Just don’t believe him when he claims he was actually in the mine.

So the film emphasizes family and fraternity, but with this emphasis comes a sharp edge: the probability that you’ll survive adversity depends entirely on how many people you can get to care about you. How many people die preventably because not enough of the right people care? How many civilians die every day as collateral damage of conflicts and disasters and epidemics that we could have avoided or mitigated? Sure, that may not sound scary at first. But then, that’s not you trapped in the mine.

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The Flow
The Feels
The Focus
The Film Score
The Flawed Screenplay

About Jordan Saïd

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Jordan Saïd does mathematics by day and writes for Front Row Central and Turban Decay by night (and weekend). He specializes in American road films, kung fu cinema, and camp (the aesthetic, not the wilderness). He lives in Eastern Washington with five cats.

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