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THE 33


Alive and Buried

Warner Brothers
 127 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Patricia Riggen 
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips

Making movies about well known historical events can be difficult because everyone knows how they will end. The Titanic sinks; Lincoln gets shot; Apollo 13 gets home safely. The more recent and better known the event, the more difficult it is to show an audience something they didn’t already know and give them a reason to watch. When director Patricia Riggen and her team of screenwriters faced the task of dramatizing the 2010 Chilean mine disaster and rescue, an event that millions watched unfold on TV news channels, they had two basic avenues of approach. They could either try to give the audience a more complete picture of what the rescue entailed or try to explore in depth the effect that spending two months underground had on a group of working class miners. The filmmakers chose to go the former route, and the result is a solidly professional but not inspired movie.


For those who might still be unaware of the event, on August 5, 2010, a cave-in at a century-old copper mine in the Chilean desert trapped 33 miners over 2,000 feet underground. After the cave-in, the miners are able to reach the temporary safety of a “refuge” chamber with sufficient air to breath, but they only have food, mostly crackers and canned tuna fish, for three days. They soon learn that ladders that were supposed to reach to the surface only extend a few dozen feet because the mining company didn’t want to spend the money to finish the job.


The ostensible leader of the miners is the foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), who blames himself for signing off that the mine was safe despite warning signs of instability. He feels certain he has led the men to their deaths.  However, a popular, upbeat miner named Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas) soon becomes the men’s de facto leader, rationing out the food and generally keeping spirits up. He convinces the others that rescue is coming, something Don Lucho highly doubts.


Fortunately for the trapped miners, the company is unable to simply bury the incident and the miners. The Chilean minister of mines, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), convinces the president (Bob Gunton) to send him to the mine to lead rescue efforts. He soon recruits Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byne), a mining engineer, who begins drilling probes in an effort to find the miners. However, as Sougarret explains to Golborne, drilling a half mile down is a very imprecise operation, and the chances of actually hitting the chamber where the men are located is quite small.


As the rescue efforts ramp up, a group of friends and relatives of the trapped miners begin a vigil as close to the facility as they can. Golborne meets with Maria Segovia, (Juliette Binoche), the estranged sister of one of the trapped miners, and they eventually agree to let the relatives take up temporary residence in tents at the site that are quickly dubbed Camp Hope. Maria realizes that keeping the disaster fresh in the public eye is critical to ensuring that the government continues the rescue efforts. She also shrewdly arranges for television news crews to cover the event as well.


Eventually, of course, one of the drill probes reaches the miners, and officials are able to get food, phones, and other supplies to the trapped men. Still, drilling a hole down that would be large enough to extricate a man would be a challenge, since much of the underground material is solid rock. Finally, after 69 days, the miners are rescued with miraculously no serious injuries or illnesses despite the harsh conditions and near bout with starvation until the probe was able to bring supplies down to them.


 The screenwriters made the decision to de-emphasize the miners themselves and instead show the full scale of the rescue operation. As a result, there is relatively little time spent in what, for the first half of the film, is a very dimly lit mine with grubby looking actors and extras. Only ten of the actors who play miners are credited, the rest are extras needed to complete the quota of trapped miners. To establish character, the four credited writers add an introductory scene a few days before the cave-in, in which Mario hosts a cookout for the other miners, and a few of them are given their rather sketchy backstories.


Other than Mario and Don Lucho, the other miners are the flimsiest of stereotypes. One man is a few days from retirement; another has a wife who is due to deliver a child in a few days; another is a newcomer from Bolivia, a neighboring country that is not of the best of terms with Chile. Some of them are emphasized not for themselves but for their relatives on the surface. One man has both a wife and a mistress who show up during the vigil and get into comic squabbles.


Antonio Banderas and Lou Diamond Phillips have the key miner roles and are fortunately up to the task. Despite his secondary billing, Phillips actually has the most challenging role and delivers the best performance as Don Lucho. As a member of management, he knows just how desperate the situation and is wracked by guilt for his complicity in allowing the mine officials to skirt safety standards, but he injects a note of sober realism in contrast to Banderas’ upbeat patter.


Although its treatment of the miners is merely passable, The 33 excels as a depiction of the cave-in and rescue. The portrayal of the actual cave-in is deliberately confusing, to show the event from the miners’ perspective, and quite well staged. From then on, the movie becomes a film about engineering and politics. The script has characters, usually Gabriel Byrne’s Sougarret, deliver explanations is a manner that’s conversational and that doesn’t come across as an information dump.


But eventually, the rescue becomes a matter of politics, as Maria and the other relatives figure out how to use the international press attention to their advantage (summoning TV news crews as an example). The president of Chile eventually recognizes how bad his administration will look internationally if they botch the rescue, but makes sure that he has the out of blaming Golborne if things go poorly. And, unfortunately, The 33 ends on a bit of a somber note as the closing titles reveal the results of the official investigation.


Just as the real life rescue was a joyous celebration, The 33 manages to capture the exhilaration of the rescue and its complexity. Perhaps someday a moviemaker will go back to that mine and explore how in depth those trapped miners continued to cope with their crisis. Until then, however, they at least have a movie that’s a fitting tribute to their continued courage and the incredible work that went into rescuing them.

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