The saga of the Chilean copper miners trapped when the Mina San José collapsed in 2010 was mesmerizing for the millions who watched it unfold. Not only did all 33 of the men who were working nearly half a mile underground survive there for more than two months, but, in a miracle of sorts, an international team of engineers managed to drill a narrow hole through tons of rock to hit the sweet spot where the men were hidden, without further destabilizing the precarious mine. The machine that hauled the men up to the surface looked endearingly crude, like a man-sized vacuum tube or a clunky Dr. Who time-travel machine, and their reunions with their thrilled loved ones supplied a whole gaggle of blockbuster-worthy happy endings.
Unfortunately, Patricia Riggen’s The 33 sucks almost all the weirdness, wonder, and ecstasy out of a truly dramatic story to make it feel falsely melodramatic. Each main character is assigned just one or two distinguishing traits and weighed down with clunky expository dialogue spoken in heavily accented English, while the film doles out a shock or hits a (usually hollow) emotional note every few minutes with mechanical precision.
After the hole is drilled to reconnect the men with the outside world, but before their rescuers figure out how to get them back to the surface, Antonio Banderas’s Mario Sepúlveda, the heroic natural leader who takes over from his ineffectual shift supervisor, Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), has an epiphany. Mario apologizes to the other men for having portrayed himself to the media as the leader who saved a hapless group. “You are my brothers, and we are going to pull together to get out of here,” he tells them. It’s a nice speech, but the film undermines it by portraying him as a blue-collar superman. He singlehandedly restores hope to the panicking group during the dark early hours of their ordeal, convinces the others to ration their food when they’re about to wolf it all down on the first day, and talks one man out of killing himself and another out of the paranoia that makes him hide in a corner with a drawn knife, afraid the others are planning to kill and eat him.
The miners had access to over a mile of tunnels in addition to the refuge where they first retreated for safety and supplies, but the film doesn’t make that clear. Instead, they appear to spend all their time in or just outside the refuge. Even so, though the collapse of the mine is seat-rattlingly cataclysmic and its immediate aftermath creepily claustrophobic, that sense of being trapped in a small, dark space dissipates rather than intensifies over time. As the men argue or laugh or clasp hands in medium shots and close-ups, their faces strategically lit by shafts of light supposedly emanating from their headlamps, their setting begins to seem almost incidental, mere background for a series of superficially touched-on male-bonding tropes: the by-the-book boss who reluctantly cedes control to the charismatic rebel, the old-timer who helps a troubled young man kick his addiction, and the insider Chileans grudgingly accepting the outsider Bolivian.
Life above ground feels no more insightful or emotionally engaging. The nonstop effort to rescue the miners is drained of its complexity and drama, and the main mechanical breakthrough is attributed to an “aha” moment experienced by a government bureaucrat. The waiting family members who might have served as an emotional conduit into the story barely register as individuals, with the exception of their leader, Maria Segovia. She’s portrayed as a stalwart advocate for the men in the mine, her relentless ferocity a note that’s hit one or two times too many. But Juliette Binoche makes that note resonate, her tight lips, harsh voice, and mistrustful but sometimes softening eyes offering a believable portrait of a woman who learned early in life that it’s up to her to stick up for her family. Because if she doesn’t, as this film makes clear, life will flatten them like a giant slab of rock.