It’s like any other day in rural Chile. Over 30 hardworking men travel hundreds of feet to their dangerous, but necessary, vocations. They are gold and copper miners. Every day these men leave behind families, friends, lovers. One man has a loving wife and teenage daughter. Another, a baby on the way. One is even two weeks away from retirement. Every day these 33 men risk their lives in order to simply put food on the table.
The men start their mornings, whether it’s with eggs over the kitchen table or alone on a bench with a bottle of vodka, without a thought to the obvious risks. Risk is part of their lives now. Bright and early, they come together to make the usual hour and a half, 200-feet descent towards the center of the earth.
But it’s not like any other day. There have been rumblings among the higher-ups of trouble in the heart of the mountain — she’s become unstable. And it’s an absolutely deadly feat to send anyone down there. But mining being the lucrative business it is, the men are sent anyway. It’s a fatally poor judgment call that will change the lives of these men forever.
Directed by Patricia Riggen, The 33 is based on the real lives of 33 Chilean miners who were trapped within the San José mine for 69 days.
Making it to the “refuge” within the mine, the men find the radio broken and the medical kit empty. They attempt to escape through ventilation shafts, but discover the ladders were only built part way. There’s no way out. By sheer will, two of the men take charge and manage to ration three days worth of food to last 17 days. And after 69 days in total, all 33 survive. To put this into perspective — every year approximately 12,000 Chileans die from exposure to the dangerous conditions in mines. This rescue was a miracle and the rescue, which was televised, was seen by people all around the world.
There’s a pretty impressive cast of actors in The 33. Antonio Banderas is “Super” Mario Sepúlveda, the caring and charismatic, if not arrogant and narcissistic, public “leader” of the men. Lou Diamond Phillips is Luis “Don Lucho” Urzúa, the shift foreman — essentially the human resources of the Chilean mining business. Supporting players include James Brolin as Jeff Hart, an American driller who supervises the drill that saves the lives of the men, Mario Casas as Alex Vega, a young miner with health problems and a pregnant wife, as well as Oscar Nunez as Yonni Barros, a man whose questionable personal life brings a lot of much-needed levity to the movie. Rodrigo Santoro plays Laurence Goldborne, Chile’s Minister of Mining, the man who defied the opinions of his superiors, of professional miners, of the entire media in order to keep drilling for the lost men.
So let’s start with the (minor) bad news. Why, oh why, did they cast non-Hispanics as Hispanics? It’s not even about the obvious white-washing of Hollywood — it’s the incredibly distracting accents. American actor Bob Gunton plays Chilean president Sebastián Piñera. His accent was touch-and-go at best. And try listening to the very Irish actor Gabriel Byrne attempt a Chilean accent. I’m not even sure either of these men can roll their Rs.
Casting issues aside, everything else was great. Juliette Binoche, a French actress who actually pulls off a passable Chilean accent, was a standout as an utterly relentless sister who is unwilling, despite the obvious political red tape and years of estrangement, to give up on her buried brother. It would have been easy to focus solely on the struggle of the 33 miners and granted, it would have been enough. But there weren’t just the 33. There were the people camped outside, day and night, of the mine. The hundreds of wives, mistresses, children, parents, friends and siblings who refused to accept “No” for an answer. And by exposing their pain, helplessness and determination for those long 69 days, the film becomes whole. And that much more rewarding.
But naturally — the men are the stars. The 33. Witnessing their slow deterioration is quite difficult to watch. But the pacing makes it. You know, from the very beginning, as they make the long trip downwards, turn on their headlights and grab their pick axes for the day, what’s going to happen to them. But it’s still riveting (and startling) when the walls of the mine actually begin to collapse around them.
And you really begin to feel the stretch of time. As the days pass– Day 3, Day 7, Day 12 — you feel your own stomach turn. As they begin to turn on each other — you worry for their safety. As they begin to experience starvation-related delusions — you worry for their sanity. It’s powerful stuff to behold. Because it’s all true. This is really what happened down there.
What is so great about this movie is that these men are painted as well-rounded, complete human beings. They aren’t just cut-and-paste depictions of real people. Each has their own backstory, quirks and flaws. One of them is legitimately an Elvis impersonator. So when you see them emerge from the depths of the earth to meet fresh air and the loved ones they haven’t touched for over two months — you completely empathize with their joy and relief.
We also bear witness to the social, political and financial ramifications of the rescue mission. The men and their families essentially become tabloid fodder. Social media and various TV stations and newspapers from around the globe are abuzz. T-shirts are made and one of the men is even offered a book deal. It’s a media circus. And then there’s the millions of government dollars spent on drills, magnets, miners, drillers, as well as housing costs for the families at the site. This isn’t a simple task by any means. Exploring these events outside of the mine, as well as the struggle of the men within it, only heightens the tension of the film. The stakes become that much higher.
It would be quite trite to say that The 33 is an inspirational story about the power of the human spirit. But — screw it — it really is.
Blu-ray extras include the Theatrical Trailer, and featurettes The Mine Collapse: a behind-the-scenes look at what it took to create a realistic mine collapse and The 33: The World was Watching: exploring why this story captivated the media and the world so deeply, with real interviews, B-roll and film footage.