Alibi V.24 No.46 • Nov 12-18, 2015 

Film Review

The 33

Real-life drama about trapped miners can’t dig itself out of “inspirational biopic” trap

“Well, it still beats working at Chipotle.”
“Well, it still beats working at Chipotle.”

The 33 (2015)

Directed by Patricia Riggen

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Cote de Pablo, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne

So long as people continue to cheat death, beat better equipped sports teams or otherwise defy the odds, Hollywood will continue to manufacture inspirational, true-life biopics. And so long as Hollywood continues to manufacture inspirational, true-life biopics, audiences will be there weeping and cheering on cue.

The 33 is merely the newest silver screen product based on a real-life incident. It shares a category with that movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper (Flash of Genius), the one with the Olympian in the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (Unbroken), the kid who saw Jesus (Heaven is For Real) and that thing where the high school football coach inspired his team to beat that other team (you know the one I’m talking about). It’s definitely true. It will undoubtedly inspire at least a few folks. And, like so many of its brethren, it will end with photographs of the real people behind it all.

Back in 2010 a group of impoverished gold miners in Copiapó, Chile, became trapped underground when the San José mine collapsed on top of them. The 33 miners ended up spending an astonishing 69 days underground. Efforts to rescue them occupied evening newscasts for almost two months, turning the entire affair into an international soap opera. Book deals were negotiated before the miners even made it out alive, so it’s surprising it’s taken this long to get the filmic version of what happened.

The “miraculous true story” of The 33 is directed by Mexican filmmaker Patricia Riggen (Under the Same Moon, Girl in Progress) and follows the events of Hector Tobar’s miner-authorized book Deep Down Dark. The film starts out, as expected, by giving us a meet-and-greet with the miners. A handful of them are afforded a single character trait so that we’ll recognize them later. There’s the family man (Antonio Banderas), the company man (Lou Diamond Phillips), the comical ladies’ man (Oscar Nuñez from “The Office”), the troubled alcoholic (Juan Pablo Raba, “Narcos”), the newlywed (Spanish TV actor Mario Casas) and the old-timer (Gustavo Angarita, The Damned). Most of them are simply composites of the actual miners. Of them, Banderas’ Mario Sepúlveda—based on the real-life ringleader “Super Mario” Sepúlveda—is the most front-and-center. Banderas delivers the film’s most committed performance—screaming and arguing and delivering stirring speeches about brotherhood when things look their darkest.

Riggen figures out a compelling visual palette with which to compose the film. The majority takes place underground in low-light situations. Riggen and cinematographer Checco Varese lens the dirt-smudged miners in a dim, black-and-yellow sepia, making much of it look like it was sketched by candlelight in chiaroscuro. It’s atmospheric and lends a medieval, quasi-religious tone to the miner’s tale of survival.

The other half of the film takes place above ground in the middle of the sun-scorched Chilean desert where politicians struggle to coordinate the rescue efforts and assorted family members alternately weep and berate the politicians (Rodrigo Santoro from “Lost” chief among them). Among the spouses, daughters and sisters loitering above ground are Cote de Pablo (from “NCIS”), Kate del Castillo (“Weeds”) and Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being). The French actress would seem like the cast’s sore thumb, but she acquits herself admirably enough. Her only stumbling block is a by-the-numbers script that keeps her around only to goose the plot along at crucial junctures. The film is also hamstrung by its decision to shoot with an international cast speaking in English. Binoche’s Chilean accent is flawless next to that of Gabriel Byrne, who shows up as a South American drilling expert. His accent sounds 50 percent Irish, 50 percent Hispanic and 100 percent like he’s choking on his own tongue.

It’s not that The 33 lacks for conviction or emotion. There are plenty of scenes that will inspire tears of sympathy or internal swellings of inspiration. There’s no doubt: This is an incredible story of human fortitude, survival and resilience. But it falls into the same trap nearly all biopics of this sort do—namely, the predetermined, unsurprising nature of a well-known “ripped from the headlines” story and the inability of a manufactured Hollywood narrative to improve on honest-to-goodness real life.