The rescue in 2010 of 33 Chilean miners — buried alive for 69 days after the collapse of a gold and copper mine — is a story guaranteed to nurture hope and raise the spirits.
In fact, you’d have to be a stone not to be moved by a tale this dramatic.
“The 33” does a decent job of laying out a complicated yarn and seasoning it with dramatic moments as it twists and turns toward an uplifting conclusion.
But it’s far from a great movie. The four-person screenwriting team and director Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon”) struggle to get their arms around so many characters and so many plot threads. The film has no central character and its dramatic impact is diffused.
Nevertheless, it does the job because we know that as unlikely as it seems, it’s a true tale.
We are introduced to the working stiffs of the San Jose Mine at a weekend party. One of the guys is an Elvis impersonator. Another is a graybeard preparing for retirement. There’s a young husband whose wife is expecting their first baby. A lothario who openly juggles both a spouse and a mistress. Of course our eyes are drawn to Mario (Antonio Banderas), a husband and father who oozes charisma and leadership.
The work gang foreman, Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), is charged with ensuring the safety of his crews but keeps getting the runaround from superiors who don’t want to sink any more money into a 100-year-old mine that’s almost played out.
There is, of course, a new kid (Tenoch Huerta), a Bolivian who gets teased by his Chilean co-workers. (After they’re buried alive, the men grimly joke that he’ll be the first consumed, since “Bolivians taste like chicken.”)
And we shouldn’t forget the hopeless alcoholic (Juan Pablo Raba), whose older sister (Juliette Binoche) will become a thorn in the side of the greedy mining corporation.
The problem facing director Riggen is obvious. There are too many personalities here to really develop any of them. Many of these fellows are “types” rather than real people.
And things get doubly complicated because while the miners are trapped 2,300 feet down in 100-degree heat with dwindling resources (mostly a few cans of tuna), back on the surface there’s another conflict brewing.
When it becomes apparent that the mining company is going to leave the men to die, the miners’ womenfolk set up a camp outside the mine’s perimeter to protest until something is done.
The Chilean president (Bob Gunton) smells a P.R. disaster and sends Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), his minister of mining, to the site to work some image repair.
Once there Golborne spearheads an international effort for the seemingly impossible task of locating the miners and getting food and water to them (also clean clothes, medical supplies and dirty magazines).
He puts to work expert engineers (Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin among them) who must use all their know-how and creativity to effect a rescue. There are successes and setbacks. All the while the clock is ticking.
“The 33” works best in the docudrama reality deep underground. Depression is rampant. Tempers flare. There are fights over food. The alcoholic goes through a painful withdrawal. Even once the miners have been located and fresh supplies lowered to them, there are internal struggles over who will get to tell their story to the world and reap the financial benefits.
Riggens took her cast and crew to a real mine to shoot “The 33” — there were no “sets.” The results are utterly convincing (though I’m not a fan of the decision to have everyone speak their lines in Spanish-accented English).
What’s really amazing, though, is the astounding good luck that allowed the rescuers to locate the lost and bring them back to the surface. Even for doubters, this qualifies as a miracle.