An adaptation of the incredible ordeal suffered by the Chilean miners in 2010 was so desired by Hollywood that a film was in the works before they were even out of the ground. It adds a slightly oily touch to Patricia Riggen's inspiring if broadly predictable human drama, The 33, a film which is bolstered by the direction of Patricia Riggen, whose Under the Same Moon proved she knows how to reach audience's hearts.
Based on Hector Tobar's book, Deep Down Dark, what audiences are treated to is a two-hour look at the 69 terrible days those mine workers endured after the San Jose Mine collapsed with them in it. Their story is one that made Chile more news-worthy than it's been in years, but also captured the attention of the entire world. Riggen's biggest hurdle isn't overcoming that everyone already knows how the story ends; it's overcoming a largely homogenized screenplay that rarely endeavors to go beyond being just another survival drama with all the familiar Hollywood checkpoints.
As such, this probably isn't the most accurate retelling of events, but the one that could get made with just the right number of recognizable stars, wherever they may be from. Antonio Banderas plays "Super" Mario Sepulveda, who became an international superstar as the public face of the trapped miners. He's a bold, boisterous guy and a natural leader, while Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) is a mine supervisor but too passive to take charge. It's Lucho who leads the men into that death trap after voicing concerns with upper management about the mine's safety, but of course he's ignored because the owner doesn't want to spend the money. Most of the men are given fleeting glimpses of personality; one is an Elvis enthusiast, one has a baby on the way and has dreams of a better life, one has a mistress, and still another is due to retire in a few days. Want to know a good way to spoil a retirement party? Getting trapped 2,000 feet underground.
There's both too much and too little ground for Riggen and the screenwriters to cover. What's going on below ground mostly amounts to the men trying to ration what little food they have, until personality conflicts inevitably begin to flare up. Riggen finds moments of levity in their tragedy, especially in one great scene in which their culinary fantasies are dreamily visualized. As the men fight to survive, the more interesting tale is being spun up above as the women in their lives struggle to keep the faith. Setting aside her French accent and trying on a Chilean one is Juliette Binoche as Maria, an eccentric who sells empanadas on the street and battles with the government (led by Rodrigo Santoro as the Minister of Mining) to get the proper drilling tools to rescue her trapped brother. Kate Del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, and a number of other Hispanic actresses bring soulfulness to what are largely under-written characters. Rather than being a story about the pain they are going through as their loved ones are buried underground; it's about the bonds these women form to help bolster one another through this nightmare.
While Binoche handles herself pretty well, some of the other casting choices are just plain weird and comically distracting. Bob Gunton couldn't be less Chilean if he tried, so seeing him as President Pinera is flat-out absurd. A real momentum killer is a protracted but important subplot involving drill bits. In fact, drill bits and finding the right drill bits is a pretty big chunk of the film, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Those lulls aside, Riggen achieves everything she intends to on an emotional level. There won't be a dry eye in the house by the time it's done, and she consistently finds way to inspirit the audience. It's a terrific story, one that epitomizes the best in all of us. What The 33 isn't is especially memorable. It does what it sets out to do, which is turn a horrible tragedy into feel-good fodder.