“Aim to miss”
As if being the international feel-good story of 2010 wasn’t enough, the Copiapó mining accident at the San José copper/gold mine in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile included the type of personal, human melodramatic intrigue ripe for cinematic interpretation. Sourced from Hector Tobar‘s non-fiction novel Deep Down Dark (commissioned with each miner’s help so one couldn’t benefit more than another), Patricia Riggen‘s The 33 could be fiction. Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) was working his day off, Álex Vega (Mario Casas) was days from fatherhood, and Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita) two weeks from retirement after forty-six years. Add in ladies’ man Yonni (Oscar Nuñez) with wife and mistress for comedic relief and alcoholic Darío (Juan Pablo Raba) for emotional gravitas and there’s a ton going on.
I can see Oscar-nominated screenwriter Craig Borten and the other writers believing all this to be crucial in telling these victims’ story, but at a certain point it gets overwhelming. It’s especially so when you consider there were thirty-three men 2,300 feet below the surface trapped in 90-plus degree heat with only three days of rations for sixty-nine days—so why do a third get the spotlight and the rest not? The obvious answer is because there isn’t time, but that excuse can also be used to prove how the focus needed scaling back even further. Yonni, for instance, is entertaining because of the fight his wife (a wasted Adriana Barraza) and girlfriend (Elizabeth De Razzo) wage above ground. But it’s a trite caricature poking fun at grief.
Take it out and you lose nothing because the laughter distracts from the suspense we should be feeling. At its core this is a tale of heroism—”Super” Mario (Banderas) unwittingly leading them to survival for as long as he can; Minister of Mining Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) tirelessly working with engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne) to break ground; and the families forcing the government’s hand by riling up the media to shine the brightest spotlight possible on a preventable tragedy. Oh, right. If the details are to be believed, mining foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) brought evidence of potential collapse to his bosses and they ignored it. That’s one more plot thread to draw us in to their plight, one more underdog aspect to rally around.
The filmmakers aren’t done there, though. We also get Darío’s straight-shooting sister María Segovia (Juliette Binoche) leading the civilian charge at the gates, refusing to accept the corporate ambivalence she knows will seal the miners’ fate if she doesn’t stand her ground. There’s the devastating recognition that the odds are nearly impossible, bringing Mario and Álex’s wives (Kate del Castillo and Cote de Pablo respectively) to tears. And President Piñera (Bob Gunton) mobiles Chile’s funds to save them by any means necessary as though he is completely selfless and not weighing the leverage this victory could give at securing his legacy and re-election. No one does wrong accept for Lucho’s boss Carlos Castillo (Mario Zaragoza). This poor guy—but rightfully so—is the evil exception within fifty-plus characters.
Credit the screenwriters for not going full-on made-for-TV manipulation by having no other conflict at all, though, even if it’s mainly just a racist (Jacob Vargas‘ Edison ‘Elvis’ Peña) riding his Bolivian compatriot Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta) who—of course—was working his first day on the job. The dynamic is set up for another character’s bid at redemption later, but at least it’s there. To have them stewing for two months in isolation and not get at each other’s throats would have been unbelievable. Thankfully Peña and Huerta are up to the task, the latter stealing moments with palpable fear. Raba is equal to that task too, warring against inner demons and alcohol withdrawal with the help of ‘Pastor’ Henriquez (Marco Treviño). His Darío steals the film.
If you want redemption—and not the kind after a fall driven by ego like the above-mentioned example—it’s in a man reborn under dire circumstances to find clarity. We meet Darío feigning sleep with a bottle on a park bench before the bus to the mine arrives as María comes around with her famous empanadas, dropping two at his side knowing he’ll ignore them. What has happened between them is unknown, but it obviously cuts deep. Both are overly aggressive throughout, one for self-preservation and the other empathetically, their emotions on their sleeves for a pair of heartbreaking reveals. Their story is what I hoped The 33 would be: one unafraid to go to dark places to get at the human psyche while death looms.
The other attempts at this are half-hearted or too brief. Álex and Don Lucho only break for a split-second before being fine again. There are so many people that none receives ample enough time to earn a crisis of faith (or have one at all). Darío can because his counterpart above ground is as crucial to the plot as he. No one else can say that. The rest of the families are merely there for emotional handwringing and a misguided group hallucination where each actress is done up in make-up and forced smiles—a scene demeaning their hard work at Camp Hope. It’s so goofy that the weight of it literally being their last supper gets erased despite them trying so hard to creates stakes a second prior.
It’s this unevenness that ruins most of the good The 33 provides. I won’t lie and say it doesn’t help that Binoche, Byrne, and Gunton are given fake tans and accents to miraculously transform into Chileans, though. They perform their roles well—Gunton inexplicably started his career doing this as Juan Perron during Evita‘s Broadway run—but it’s distracting nonetheless. Their inclusion takes something away from the story, as does the decision to make it English. Rather than show us a Chilean story of harrowing survival, we get a Hollywood glamor shot of unlikely heroes in a deathless miracle of feels that studio execs love. The American media made this tragedy our story through their coverage and this movie does the same. The vantage point is all wrong.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: November 13th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Patricia Riggen
Writer(s): Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten & Michael Thomas / Jose Rivera (screen story) /
Hector Tobar (book Deep Down Dark)