A 2010 mining accident in Chile, where 33 men were trapped thousands of feet underground for 69 days after the San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert collapsed, drew international attention – and with good reason. It’s a remarkable story. So maybe it was inevitable that the story would get optioned for a film. And while The 33, an English-language dramatization of the events, does manage to effectively recreate the mine collapse, the ensuing drama produces more mixed results.
Early on, foreman Luis Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips) warns the manager of the mine that there’s evidence of some instability within the mine. Still, the men are sent down into the mine to excavate the copper and gold found within. Over this scene, and a couple before, the film introduces some of the miners. They include a young newlywed whose wife is pregnant, an alcoholic, a man who’s open about cavorting with his mistress to his wife, a Bolivian immigrant on his first day working, an older man on his final shift, and a spirited family man named Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas).
A handful of the 33 miners are sketched out before the mine collapses. To her credit, director Patricia Riggen stages this sequence to create serious panic and tension. The cascading fall of rock and debris pushes the men quickly further into the mountain, to a place called “The Refuge,” which quickly becomes home to a larger sense of paranoia as the men come to terms with the hopelessness of their predicament. Luis falls apart, leaving Mario to step and become the leader of these men. He rations out what little food they have, while trying to keep everyone’s spirits up.
Above ground, Chile’s president (Bob Gunton) initially plans to keep the government out of the crisis. His new Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), manages to convince him that not responding would look bad politically, especially with the families of the miners quickly coming together outside the gates of the mine, with press in tow. So Golborne is sent to the mine, where he eventually earns the trust of the families. He’s also able to call in every drill available, along with engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), to find a way to get to the men – if they can find them in the first place.
That initial period between the accident and the eventual discovery of the 33 miners’ location, which cuts between the survival of the men below and the relentless work ethic of those above ground, ends up providing the largest part of the film’s overall narrative. Even knowing the final outcome, there’s a building tension on both sides as everyone attempts to hold onto the hope that the miners will be discovered. That tension, though, is undercut by the obligatory diversions into individual characters. The diversions might be more effective if the film gave more details upfront about any of the men. But each man is a thumbnail sketch, and most can’t provide anything substantial. Worse, there are some random scenes thrown in, such as one where the men conjure up a collective dream that the women in their lives serve each man his favorite meal, as the men are eating the last of their rations. The sequence is played for laughs, but it’s more strange than silly.
Aside from the visual representation of the cave, there are plenty of elements that work here. Banderas’ performance utilizes his charisma to make Mario an effective leader, capable of shifting from silly to fury whenever needed. Santoro also impresses as Golborne, with his humanity quickly revealing itself as he attempts to create new ways to rescue the miners. Juliette Binoche also impresses as the estranged sister of the alcoholic miner, though her accent could use some work. She’s at least better than Gunton and Byrne, who seem incapable of delivering solid accents.
Of course, the film has a happy ending. And in keeping with the current biopic trend of showing photos of the actual subjects of the film, all 33 miners are assembled on a beach in order for each one to appear in close-up in a montage. It’s a welcome reminder of the good that came out of this story, even if the closing credits also inform viewers that the mining company survived and failed to offer anything resembling restitution to the miners. The 33 attempts to honor them, and while it doesn’t always succeed, it does a respectable job more often than not.