Nutshell: While The 33 may not be filled with twists and turns — this is based on a true story after all — it does what it’s supposed to do. It connects you to the miners trapped and fighting for their lives, and shows us the humanity and humor within the group of men we all rooted for in 2010. Add in James Horner’s amazing score (one of the last before his death), and you’ve got a film that tugs on all the right heartstrings. Grade: A-
“That’s not a rock. That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.”
Ahh, the docudrama. It can be amazing (All the President’s Men, The Blind Side, The Right Stuff) or abysmal (Breast Men, The Legend of Boggy Creek, and oh-for-gods-sake Beyond the Sea). All depends on the subject matter (Gacy, anyone? Bueller?), the casting (John Wayne as Genghis Khan?), and let’s face it, a little touch of zeitgeist. The 33 has a great subject (the Chilean mining accident of 2010), fantastic casting (the men here all portray their real-life counterparts admirably) and definitely the ‘geist (couldn’t we all use a feel-good story that actually happened not too long ago?)
Is it a bit too twee, a little too unbelievable? Sure it is; c’mon, if a guy tried to pitch a drama about miners who were trapped in a 94 degree hotspot for months, and the kicker is they all survived? Nobody’d buy it. But this really happened. And director Patricia Riggen (Lemonade Mouth) focuses on the men trapped below, and also shows us their families, along with the political power struggle that went on behind the scenes. It’s docudrama catnip, and it works.
A twinkle of starpower doesn’t hurt either. Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, The Office‘s Oscar Nuñez are part of the group trapped in the mine, while Juliette Binoche heads up the family members up above. Rodrigo Santoro (Lost) is the lone politician who decides to try to help the miners, and who finally gets some help from a public engineer played by Gabriel Byrne.
If all these names don’t exactly say Latino to you, you’re not alone. Yet, Carla Hool’s (Narcos) casting is on point. There’s a cornucopia of “looks” throughout North, Central and South America, and The 33 doesn’t shy from that. It even points a finger at it from time to time, most noticeably when the one lone Bolivian miner feels like he’s been ostracized for simply being different. (Another instance is when Binoche’s character criticizes the government, saying they’ll only send “a pretty face” to the mine, and will ultimately do nothing.)
The 33 lets you feel exactly how trapped these miners are, in a superb scene that takes the crew down, down, down the mine. From point to point, the depth is noted, and the time passing is also made mention (FYI, it took over an hour’s worth of driving to get them to where they could start work.) So is the temperature at their two main locations: the machine shop (90 degrees, 17,000 meters undeground) and the Refuge (94 degrees, 25,000 underground).
You won’t get evolved plot development or avant garde storytelling here; this is a dramatic telling of a real-life disaster. There’s no need to gussy it up with twists and turns that didn’t occur IRL, nor are interpretive bells and whistles required to make this story feel relevant and fresh. A bit too rote? Um, it’s a real story that had a beginning, a crisis, a middle, and an end. And The 33 does the same; a beginning, the collapse, the struggle to find them, the struggle to free them, and the happy ending. But the actors make you care about their characters, and the editing is quick without being frenzied. (Granted, the story sputters a bit here and there, as power plays and a bit too much 411 clutter the scene.) All in all though, paint by numbers storytelling doesn’t get any more lovely than this.
That all the men in The 33 survived is like a bullshit feel good story some hack came up with for Lifetime. It’s too unbelievable to be able to sell the public on. How could anyone survive that, let alone every single one of those miners? And yet, they did. It happened. They’re all alive, and well. And that’s part of what makes The 33 such an enjoyable film. Add on a director that knows how to shift the story from the miners to those above, production design that keeps things real, from grit to sweat to tuna water soup, and an absolutely lovely score from the late great James Horner. And there’s even some humor in the darkest of places, as the men struggle to keep a firm hold on their sanity and their hope.
Note: keep an ear out for Cote de Pablo (NCIS) – playing miner Álex Vega’s wife Jessica – and her beautiful singing voice. When the family members take up residence outside the mine (called “Camp Hope”), Jessica sings a song of love and pain that is absolutely wonderful. Don’t miss it.