Before descending into the bowels of the earth, workers at the San Jose gold and copper mine pause before a shrine to pray for protection. They need help from a higher power as the mining companies place profit above safety.
Each time the miners enter the gaping maw, they know there is a chance they’ll never return.
When the mountain collapses after 100 years of mining, it’s no surprise. Thirty-three miners are trapped. A rock twice the size of the Empire State Building stands between the men and fresh air. In their small refuge, they have a dozen cans of tuna, some stale cookies and milk. It’s barely enough to feed 33 men for a day, let alone the days it will take for help to reach them.
The company response is to follow protocol: Ignore the collapse, try to contain news of the trapped miners and avoid terrified family members seeking answers. Infuriated that their husbands, brothers and sons are being left to die, the families riot, making the news.
The president of Chile (Bob Gunton: Daredevil) sends his minister of mining (Rodrigo Santoro: Focus) to deal with the crisis. As the government races to drill to the miners, morale and food run low for the trapped men.
Frustrating and gripping, The 33 is best underground, excelling at capturing the dynamics of the miners who spent 69 days trapped in a gold-and copper-laden tomb. Director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress) masterfully crafts the cave-in scene, escalating the tension as the miners scramble toward safety. Watching the group come together and fracture as starvation, exhaustion and depression infiltrate is riveting.
As Mario, the leader of the miners, Antonio Banderas (The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water) carries the film well, even managing to sell some of the more heavy-handed dialogue. The other miners are all tertiary, but Riggen gives them all character action so that we care for the men.
Above ground, Riggen has mixed success. She devotes a good deal of time to the miners’ families, but the characters are underdeveloped and boring compared to the miners. The notable exception is Juliette Binoche (7 Letters), who plays Maria, the fierce sister of a trapped miner. Binoche becomes the leader of the families, forcing the government to take accountability and refusing to give up hope.
The greatest problem with The 33 is its scope. Riggen brings in so many plot threads and themes that they obscure the main story of survival while buried in the earth. Because the film is overcrowded, no character is fully developed. It’s also slightly uncomfortable to watch white actors, like Gunton who plays the president, pretend to be Chilean with ridiculous accents.
Though flawed, The 33 is compelling whenever Riggen focuses on the subterranean drama. Buy your ticket to watch Banderas and his band of brothers fight for survival. When the film cuts to topside drama, take a bathroom break or get a popcorn refill.
Fair Drama • PG-13 • 120 mins.