The fear of being buried alive is a primal terror that has spawned its share of scary stories and legends. Yet, for miners, that fear is connected to a very real danger. In the event of a mine collapse, being buried alive is a real possibility. In August 2010, 33 miners in Chile’s San Jose mine were trapped for nearly 70 days, uncertain if the efforts to rescue them would ever succeed. The 33 tells their story with an attractive international cast and an at-times too optimistic approach.
The 33 picks up the day before the mine collapse, introducing the audience to the families and personal struggles of a handful of the miners, including Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas), who is supposed to have the next day off, but picks up an extra shift; Álex Vega (Mario Casas), whose wife, Jessica (Cote de Pablo), is expecting their child soon; Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nunez), who is dealing with his wife and mistress; and Mario Gomex (Gustavo Angarita), who is set to retire. As they prepare to go into the mine, shift foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) warns the mine owners of signs of shifting in the mountain, but his fears are waved off, sending the crew into the mine where a collapse traps them 2,500 feet underground. Once news of the collapse reaches the families, they fight to get help from the government, represented by Minister of Mining, Laurence Goldborne (Rodrigo Santoro) and President Pinera (Bob Gunton). The rest of the film covers the major drama of getting the men out of the mine, as well as the individual dramas in the lives of Los 33 as they struggle with personal demons and difficult relationships.
The struggle of The 33 as a film is striking a balance between the inspirational and miraculous survival of the miners and the anger that should be expressed toward the government and the mining industry. That the men survived in the mine for so long and banded together so successfully is inspiring and beautiful, making theirs a true story of hope the likes of which Hollywood struggles so hard to manufacture on a regular basis. The film is at its strongest when focused on the solidarity of the men and their families as they cope with the incredible odds they face. The gentleness with which the story treats forgiveness, humility, and perseverance illustrates a maturity in the script that brings out the best of its characters. Ironically, however, the film backs away from the dark places in the story—the criminal negligence of which the mining company is never found guilty, the reluctance of the government to help, the capitalist system that makes mining such a dangerous job for many workers, who see very little of the profit. As much as I felt elated at the miners’ rescue, I felt like the film could have used some more anger to really tell the story. Instead, The 33 lets the company get away with their bad practices as much as the legal system did.
The most intense part of the movie is easily the scene of the mine collapse, which had me holding my breath. My favorite scene of the film, however, featured the break-in of fantasy, as the starving men enjoy their last tablespoon of canned tuna each and imagine their dream women bringing them their dream meals. The colorful, whimsical interlude captured the depth of their hunger while breaking up the predictable pattern of the narrative. I wish that the film had experimented more with scenes like this, using some fantasy or impressionism to cut through the sentimental core that feels so tired thanks to the manufacturing of feel-good films in Hollywood.
The 33 is beautifully crafted and wonderfully acted. Its conventionality, however, doesn’t overcome the fact that the story’s ending is old news and the sentimentality, even if true, is predictable. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but still felt like something was missing. I wanted more. 3.5/5 stars.
The 33 was written by Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas, based on the book Deep Down Dark by Hector Tobar in collaboration with The 33. It was directed by Patricia Riggen and runs 127 minutes and is rated PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language.