Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, History
Run Time: 2 hours, Rated PG-13
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, James Brolin, Lou Diamond Phillips, Oscar Nunez, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas
Directed by Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress, Under the Same Moon)
The Chilean mining accident dominated headlines in August of 2010, when 33 coal miners were trapped 700 meters underground in the Atacama Desert, after the silver and gold mine they were working inside of collapsed. Feared dead, these men leaned on each other and rationed the little food they had far below the earth, holding on to faint hope that they would ever again see the light of day. From the outside, it was a grim outlook, as many - including the mining company, the Chilean government and the families of the buried - understood that there was little chance of survival...some estimates had them lasting no more than a few days. Miraculously (spoiler alert!!), 69 days later, all thirty-three men were pulled up from the ground, alive and for the most part, well. The 33 (opening today) is a conventional, Americanized dramatization of their story.
Underground, the born leader, Mario (Antonio Banderas) and his mining foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) are the key characters the story chooses to linger on. Everyone else - a pastor, a womanizer, a Bolivian outsider - are pretty much filler characters (of the 33 men down there, we get introduced to only a handful of them, with several of them not introduced at all). Mario and Don Lucho struggle to keep their men's spirits up even when they at times doubt that they will ever be found. All they can do is wait, and hope that those above ground have not given up the search.
The movie shifts between the men below and those above as it tries to tell the story of the search effort. At first, the government seems unwilling to invest millions in what many consider to be a fruitless search and rescue effort, but when the families show up at the mining site, demanding that their loved ones be found, pressure builds. First, Laurence (Rodrigo Santoro), a government official, is sent in to quell the commotion and to try to assess the situation. Eventually, they bring in Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), a specialist, to drill down to the refuge area where they hope any survivors may be gathered. When the discover the men are still alive, the story is really just beginning, because buried virtually under a mountain, it becomes an international effort to try keep these men alive and hopefully reunite them with their families.
The story itself is real-world heroism, although this impressive survival story comes as a result of corporate failings. While the mining company, it's explained, never had charges pressed against it for this accident, it is more than hinted at in the film that these men and their work environment was anything but safe. Communication lines and supplies down below were non-existent, where even First-Aid boxes were completely barren. Emergency escape chutes had broken and incomplete ladders making them impossible to use. The crew itself sees warning signs of unsafe working conditions, but managers tell them to mind their business. Much like the banking crisis in America, where few actually were held accountable for their failings, the mining company and their horrific work practices get swept under the rug with the feel-good story of the miners successful rescue.
And while there are several nice moments (the crew optimistically imagining they are eating a feast is among the best sequences in the film), and solid performances by Banderas and Phillips, the movie is very on-the-nose conventional and plays up drama in the way a TV movie would. We get very little interaction between the miners and their families before they are underground, and none of the characters - above or below ground - are really fleshed out. We care about their recovery because we are human, and we sympathize with their worried loved ones because because we are compassionate. But the characters themselves are not very memorable, and some are downright distracting. Juliette Binoche and Gabriel Byrne - two actors whom I love and am big fans of - give performances that stick out like sore thumbs, both turning in borderline offensive South American accents and not being given much to do. Binoche's character is even given some absurd exchanges with Rodrigo Santoro's character, Laurence, hinting at romantic undertones. Her character was an attempt to humanize the suffering of the families who were wrapped up in this event, but much of the drama that is created feels like pure vanilla.
The 33 hits every note that you expect it to, on cue, and the result is a feel-good story that doesn't carry the emotional weight you might expect it to. It's a bit watered-down dramatically, caving under several tired dramatic manipulations. Speaking of notes by the way, this film marks one of the last to be scored by the late James Horner, who died tragically this past Summer. The film ends with a graphic dedicating it to him, along with a heart-warming sequence of the real 33.
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