How do you dramatize the unthinkable? On August 5, 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped when the 100-year-old gold and copper mine in which they were working collapsed around them. For weeks, no one knew if they were alive or dead. But 69 days later, after a team of international drilling experts had worked around the clock, every one was brought safely to the surface. The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen, makes a valiant effort to tell this harrowing story onscreen, and there are moments when every shifting plate clicks right into place. In the end, though, the picture stumbles, and it may not completely be the fault of the filmmakers. Unless you drastically alter the details of real life, they don't always translate meaningfully to the screen. But at the very least, The 33 errs on the side of honorability in telling the men's stories.
Riggen — whose previous credits include the 2007 drama Under the Same Moon — takes great care in setting the scene, underscoring just how much these dirty, dangerous jobs mean to these men. The picture was filmed in the Atacama Desert, just kilometers from the actual mine; cinematographer Checco Varese captures the rugged, dispiriting beauty of the place, all golden and dry, like a forgotten planet. It's there that we meet the ragtag group of miners, innocently unaware of the trial that awaits them: Mario (Antonio Banderas) is a family man who needs more work, so he approaches supervisor Luis, also known as "Don Lucho" (Lou Diamond Phillips), for some extra hours. Álex (Mario Casas), a mechanic by trade, opts — reluctantly — to try mining work as a way of making more money for himself, his wife, and their unborn child. There's also Darío (Juan Pablo Raba), an alcoholic who has become estranged from his only family member, his sister, María (Juliette Binoche, in a stock earth-mother role); Edison (Jacob Vargas), a jovial Elvis impersonator; and Yonni (Oscar Nuñez), who, it turns out, has both a wife and a lady friend on the side, a secret life that ends up causing amusing reverberations aboveground.
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The sequence showing the miners' being trapped is a nightmare for claustrophobes, with hurtling rocks and sheets of dust falling like hard, gray rain. The men pile into a rickety-looking open truck and gun the engine, desperate to make it out in time. This is the moment you might fear, as I did, that The 33 will turn this extraordinary real-life story into a cheap disaster movie.
But Riggen and screenwriters Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas (using a story by José Rivera and Hector Tobar's 2014 book about the disaster and rescue, Deep Down Dark, as sources) quickly shift gears. The action in The 33 toggles between the story of the trapped men below and the families and rescuers waiting and working above. (The latter group includes Laurence Golborne — played with low-key determination by Rodrigo Santoro — Chile's stalwart minister of mining, who had been on the job only four months when the disaster occurred.) One of the chief problems with The 33 is that when we're aboveground, we long to be below, with the men. That's partly because the actors who play them are so appealing. At one point, Banderas, gazing upon the gargantuan boulder that blocks the men's path to the surface, says, "That's not a rock; that's the heart of the mountain. She finally broke." You could call the dialogue corny and overblown, but it more than suits the moment and the mood, and Banderas delivers it like a line of folk poetry.
The movie falters in the last third, once the families and rescuers discover that the men are alive but must still find a way to get them out: Even if, in real life, the situation was still desperately tense at that point, the picture loses some of its urgency. But parts of the movie's midsection, in which the men negotiate dim, cramped quarters and meager food rations, are superb: The sight of Banderas' Mario, the de facto leader of the group and the keeper of the food, carefully pouring a few inches of milk into each of 33 plastic cups, is both comical and wrenching. And there's a lovely dreamlike sequence in which a small blob of tuna mixed with water becomes, for each man, an imaginary feast fit for an underground king, a bountiful repast shared with loved ones. Cinematographer Varese has done beautiful work here: Even when the men are at their skinniest, dirtiest, and most discouraged, their skin glows with a soft light, as if they're absorbing as much heavenly grace as possible to get them through this ordeal. The heart of the mountain may have broken, but they didn't.
Starring Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne, James Brolin, Mario Casas, and Jacob Vargas. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Written by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas. Based on the book Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday, November 13.