Film Spotlight: The 33

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The 33 is "the Chilean miner movie" you assumed was probably coming at some point. It attempts to dramatize the global news event from 2010, when 33 miners at a treacherous gold and copper mine in northern Chile survived deep beneath the earth's surface for 69 days.

The movie, we're very sorry to report, is more or less an unqualified failure. One of the few moments that comes close to historic or emotional authenticity doesn't arrive until the closing credits, when the real-live 33 are filmed on a beach, smiling and embracing as text tells us that the men we just saw portrayed by Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Oscar from The Office and 29 others were never compensated in any way for the accident. Lordy...but if this sounds like just the herbal supplement to spice up your South-American-themed date night this weekend, it opens Friday at select theaters.   

One of its biggest problems is its synthetic feel, its gloss: Not only are all the Chileans speaking English, much of the film's principal cast is lily white. Chocolat's Juliette Binoche plays the sister of one of the miners and the ringleader of the "family and friends" contingent at the accident site. A great deal of eye makeup constitutes her first and last credential as a South American empanada vendor. California native Bob Gunton, he of Shawshank and, more recently, Netflix's Daredevil, plays Chile's president. And though the Brazilian dish Rodrigo Santoro plays his chief of mining, the nation's leading engineer is brought to a form of life by a windswept Gabriel Byrne.

The collapse of the mine itself, and the deep spiral of its underground service ramps, are jolting to see — who knew it went so deep? — but the tone of the scenes down there is way off. It's frankly too jokey. These men are subsisting on a thimble of canned tuna per day, washed down with a sip of sedimentary water, and yet they manage to pal around non-stop. There are a few moments of frayed nerves — Banderas hogging the spotlight once a connection is established with the outside world — but you never get the sense that anyone's life is legitimately at stake. Couple that with the campy dramas unfolding above ground — a wife and a mistress duke it out in the local press; Binoche falls for Santoro — and you're never sure how to feel.

Perhaps that's why the script has contrived moments of danger and urgency that serve only as cheap adrenaline shots, not as functional pieces of a story. Surely the lamest scene in the film occurs when Byrne tells Santoro that their attempt to reach the miners by drill has failed. They overshot their mark 2,000 feet below, he says, and there's not enough time left to try again. But Santoro, with enough ardor and glee to convince us he'd cracked interdimensional travel, says he's figured out a solution.

"We shoot to miss," he tells Byrne.

"Shoot to miss?" Byrne asks. "Now you're thinking," and he pauses, gosh-wowed by the genius. "Now you're thinking like a miner."  

How this solves any of the logistical nightmares at hand is not the province of this movie. Director Patricia Riggen has other logistical nightmares from which to wake, like how to organically introduce an audience to an unwieldy ensemble cast (she doesn't) and how to condense a drama that unfolded over 69 days into a narrative drama that unfolds over two hours (she can't).

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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