The effort to rescue thirty-three Chilean workers trapped more than 2,000 feet underground after the collapse of a century-old gold-and-copper mine gripped the world for more than two months in 2010, but Patricia Riggen’s film about it struggles to hold one’s attention for even two hours. Based on Hector Tobar’s “Deep Down Dark,” a book drawing on the miners’ own accounts of their ordeal, “The 33” is a peculiar combination of dutiful recreation and souped-up Hollywood disaster movie, hobbled by a decision to use a multinational cast that struggles to achieve authenticity.
After some impressive aerial shots of the Atacama Desert accompanied by the evocative strains of the late James Horner’s native-themed score, the script shifts immediately to the introduction of its sketchily drawn workers at an outdoor party. The dominant one is Mario (Antonio Banderas), a gregarious fellow with a loving family. But we also meet Luis (Lou Diamond Phillips), the foreman; Edison (Jacob Vargas), an Elvis impersonator; Alex (Mario Casas), a young husband with a child on the way; Yonni (Oscar Nunez), a comical fellow juggling a wife and a mistress; and, perhaps inevitably, Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), the grizzled 45-year veteran on the cusp of retirement. Others are added as the troupe is bussed to the mine: Dario (Juan Pablo Raba), a young man addicted to drugs and drink; and Carlos (Tenoch Huerta), a Bolivian who’s treated as a pariah by everyone but Mario. We also meet Dario’s estranged sister Maria (Juliette Binoche), who sells homemade empanadas and is desperate to reconnect with her brother.
The mine collapse—which safety-conscious Luis had raised as a possibility with the operation’s callous overseer—occurs almost as soon as the shift goes below. But they’re all able to get to the safety zone known as The Refuge, though they find that the supplies there are meager and that the company had failed to complete the requisite escape route or even maintain the radio. The company’s attitude in the aftermath of the disaster is no less callous, doing little but keep the miners’ families at arm’s length. It’s somewhat of a surprise when the new, callow Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) decides that the government should become involved, and with the grudging approval of the President (Bob Gunton) he speeds to the site and, prodded by Maria, decides to take over the rescue effort himself. That will ultimately lead to the arrival of Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), the premier Chilean expert in the field, and before long massive drills are brought in, one operated by a gruff American (James Brolin). But the progress is agonizingly slow and riddled with obstacles.
The filmmakers can’t generate suspense by keeping viewers on edge about the outcome, so they’re basically content to juggle sequences showing those above ground either working to drill through to The Refuge or anxiously awaiting word about the fate of their loved ones with others depicting how the men below fared for 69 days. In the open-air sections, they try to unify the two competing threads by positing a growing relationship of respect between Maria and Laurence, whom the volatile woman first accuses of doing too little but comes to appreciate for his efforts; it’s not a particularly successful aspect of the picture, and the occasional comic interludes—as in the scuffles between Yonni’s wife and mistress—come across as attempts at crowd-pleasing that simply fall flat.
Meanwhile in The Refuge below, a rather predictable narrative emerges, with Mario assuming a lead role as holder of the key to the food chest and an arbiter in the occasional emotional outbursts that break out, most (though not all) centered on Carlos. The approach here is a curious blend of naturalism and forced “personal growth,” with Dario, for example, realizing how wrong his long exclusion of Maria from his life has been. There are entirely too many points at which Riggen is obviously straining to make the men symbols of the indomitability of the human spirit, as they deliver inspirational speeches that, however much they might be based on fact, feel contrived. She also goes for surrealism at one point, as the miners, seated around a table consuming their tiny rations, imagine themselves being visited by the women in their lives bearing enormous helpings of their favorite dishes. It’s an idea, unfortunately, that probably seemed better in the planning stages than it emerges on screen.
The central problem with “The 33” is that it never manages to develop a sense of authenticity. That’s not the fault of the craft contributions, which are excellent overall. Marco Niro’s production design is effective, as are Hector Rivera’s art direction, Aida Rodriguez’s sets and Paco Delgado’s costumes. The locations are well-chosen and expertly captured in Checco Verese’s widescreen images. And the visual effects—particularly in the sequence of the mine’s collapse—are impressive.
But the international character of the cast is a serious drawback. Some of the supporting actors do nice work, and a few of the leads—like Phillips—are convincing. But most are not. Banderas bellows a great deal and overplays his big scenes; Binoche is simply miscast; Byrne grapples with his accent; and Gunton seems totally at sea as the Chilean president. Santoro makes an eager, committed government official trying to do the right thing.
“The 33” is certainly a story worth telling. Unfortunately, the story is far more compelling than the way it’s told here.