Movies are forever trying to capture the essence of the human spirit, and by that measure, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a story more tailor-made for the movies than the incredible 2010 Chilean mine rescue. If the details are hazy in your mind, just go to YouTube right now and watch the first miner reach the surface in that tiny capsule they built. We dare you not to cry.
And that’s actually part of the problem with “The 33,” directed by Patricia Riggen. The real-life saga was so visceral — and so visual, unfolding as it did on live TV — that it’s tough to beat the memory. You could say that such a movie writes itself, but that’s not true — a cinematic portrayal of an event so recent needs to do something creative to move things forward, present a new angle, offer a different perspective. “The 33” is well-meaning, well-crafted and faithful to the source material, but ultimately it feels disappointingly formulaic.
We begin with a happy scene, a festive retirement party. There, we meet many of the men, including Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas), the most charismatic of the bunch; he asks supervisor Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) if he can work the next day, though it’s his day off.
In the village, we also quickly meet Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), a troubled miner with an addiction problem, and the caring older sister he neglects, the empanada-seller Maria (Juliette Binoche, in an underdrawn role that never quite seems to fit).
Alas, these hasty interchanges don’t give much meaningful insight into the characters (indeed, the script’s thin characterizations are the weak link of the film.) The next day, the men arrive at the mouth of the mine. “Is this the only way in?” asks newcomer Carlos. “The only way in, and the only way out,” replies Banderas’ Mario, doing the most with a line that’s a little too obvious.
And then the mine collapses, with frightening violence. Now we have, essentially, two dramas unfolding: Above ground, where the desperate families have set up camp, and below, where 33 men are trapped 2,300 feet down in searing heat. In the so-called “refuge,” food provisions consist of a few cans of tuna, some cookies, a bit of milk. Don Lucho informs the men that death is surely imminent. “It took 100 years for them to dig this deep,” he says. “We’re too far down.”
On the surface, primary responsibility falls to the brand-new minister of mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro, whose face you know because he’s the handsomest guy in any movie he’s in). It falls to Golborne to keep the family members — particularly the feisty, insistent Maria — informed, and at one point to convince even chief engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne, also underused) that hope is alive.
The men are left to subsist on 100 calories per day. A bite of canned tuna turns, in the film’s most interesting scene, into a dreamlike feast for each one. This fantasy sequence is compelling but a bit jarring, too, considering the film’s otherwise straightforward tone.
The men are close to starving when the drill finally breaks through and they’re able to send up a note, in red paint, saying all 33 are alive. At this point, moviegoer, you’ll need your Kleenex.
But it will take nearly two more months — to day 69 — to get the men out. Fights erupt; egos clash. And then the first man is wedging himself into that tiny capsule. The rescuers don’t know if it’ll work.
We end with real footage of the men today, together on a beach, and it’s a moving sight. Their story will never get old. It would have been nice, though, to see it told here with a little more imagination and a little less formula.