In 2010, the world was captivated by the real life drama of thirty-three Chilean miners trapped underground in a collapsed gold and copper mine. Sixty-nine days later a miracle was achieved when all thirty-three men were rescued, starved but alive. Interviews, television appearances, and books followed, and a film adaptation was inevitable. That film has now arrived with The 33, an adaptation of the book Deep Down Dark, directed by Patricia Riggen (La Misma Luna), and starring Antonio Banderas at the head of an ensemble that includes Lou Diamond Phillips, Juliette Binoche, and Rodrigo Santoro. The 33, though not a bad film, highlights the challenges of bringing true stories of survival to the big screen—not every dramatic story is actually cinematic.
Riggen, along with cinematographer Checco Varese—who previously collaborated with her on La Misma Luna—does everything she can to render the story of a bunch of sweaty dudes trapped in a small dark space visually interesting, but ultimately she can’t quite solve the problem of such an uncinematic location; The 33 is pretty boring to watch. The score by James Horner—one of his last—is above-average good, tweaking emotions in key moments to highlight fear and hope in turns, but even with our emotions goosed along by the soundtrack, too much of the movie is visually unappealing to go down smooth. Riggen, with a script from Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Michael Thomas, bounces between the subterranean mine and the tent city that springs up above, for family members of trapped miners and world media come to cover them.
It’s not enough. French actress Juliette Binoche somewhat puzzlingly plays Maria Segovia, sister of the one trapped miners who becomes a leader in the family encampment, and a chief advocate for continuing the efforts to rescue the miners. She gives one of several fine performances—Tony Flags is very good as the de facto leader of the miners, “Super” Mario Sepulveda, and Lou Diamond Phillips has a great breakdown scene. Everyone is trying very hard to make this movie engaging, it just isn’t. Momentum comes in fits and starts but can’t be sustained in such a boring environment.
It doesn’t help that the script feels watered down and too broad. We see plenty of moments of rationing, a bit of gallows humor as the men discuss cannibalism, and the best scene in the movie is a fantasy sequence in which the starving men imagine themselves at a lavish banquet. But The 33 is reluctant to actually GO THERE and depict the physical reality of starvation. Many of the problems facing The 33 also face 127 Hours, but Danny Boyle overcomes those issues by committing to the physical reality of a man trapped by a rock and cutting his own arm off. It’s a visceral film as a result, where The 33 feels divorced from the physical suffering of the miners. It softens a film that desperately needs an edge.
The 33 hints at negligence on the part of the mining company, but this angle isn’t explored in any meaningful way. Instead the film focuses on the perseverance and will of the miners and the people pushing for their rescue, which is fine, except the intertitles at the end of the movie explain that the miners were never compensated for their suffering. That’s outrageous! Why, then, is the film so reluctant to push that button?
One of the best parts of Spotlight is that the reporters and editors at the Boston Globe hold themselves accountable for how they failed on previous opportunities to report on the sex abuse within the Catholic Church. The 33, however, actively resists drawing too strong a line to the responsibilities of the mining company, which creates another point of weakness. There are really effective moments in The 33. The mine collapse is nightmarish, the rescue is genuinely moving. But in between is a lot of sameness that no amount of inspiring speechifying or clever camera edits can relieve. In the end, The 33 is a rather minor movie about miners. (Couldn’t resist.)
Attached - The cast of The 33 at the AFI Fest premiere earlier this month.