Review: ‘The 33′
REVIEW BY BURL BURLINGAME / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Director Patricia Riggen makes a smart visual cue in the opening scenes of “The 33,” and repeats it as necessary throughout — the wide, open, vast bowl of the sky over the desolate Atacama Desert, a place so remote, barren and desiccated that it might as well be Mars. It seems endless.
It’s the site of the 2010 Copiapo mining accident, in which 33 miners were trapped for 69 days underground, while rescuers frantically drilled for them and the world watch breathlessly. It all ended well. There’s nothing more entertaining, it seems, than a world-wide deathwatch.
Oops, have I just given away the entire plot and ending for “The 33,” the new film about the disaster? Not unless your memory doesn’t stretch as far back as 2010.
Riggen is known primarily for lukewarm family comedies on the Disney Channel, and so this latest film is a seat on the grown-ups’ table. The movie hits familiar cinematic beats right on cue, and the pacing is pretty predictable. You can set your stopwatch where Act 2 and Act 3 begin. Plus, we all know the story, right? “The 33” ought to be a tough slog.
And yet, it isn’t. I found it fascinating. The devil, as they say, is in the details. “The 33” — helped by a tight script and a brisk running time — is a focus on the human effort by the rescuers to drill in time, and by the superhuman effort by the miners to stay alive. It is interwoven with just enough technical detail and explanation so we can follow the process, and sprinkled with enough humor to leaven the dread. In many ways, it’s pretty inspiring.
Movies can also drop you in a place and time you cannot pick up from simply reading about an incident. To experience the core of a mountain giving way, the rumble and whoosh, on a big screen is terrifying and the darkness that closes in is not for the claustrophobic. Now you know why Riggen opened with those wide open spaces.
There are surprising things. If you pictured the miners huddled in a tiny cave, that wasn’t the case. The Copiapo Mine was vast, dug over 100 years. The miners got around by driving trucks and the excavated spaces were so far-reaching they never lacked for air. It was food and water they needed. And a way out.
There’s a fantasy scene when the miners hallucinated about food that’s a bit jarring, but also funny. The script focuses on about a dozen of the miners and the narrative choreography makes them brightly individual characters. They could have easily all blended together in a lesser film.
“The 33” stars Antonio Bandaras as Mario Sepulveda, a self-aggrandizing natural leader who rallied the miners into a cohesive team and whose star slipped a bit when they achieved contact and food supplies with the surface and became international celebrities. Juliette Binoche is fine as the furious sister of a troubled miner, but James Brolin has a thankless part — a cameo, really — as an American drilling expert.
The standout is Lou Diamond Phillips as the miners’ union leader who is trapped with them and also consumed with regret over their predicament. According to the credits, Martin Sheen is in the movie, but I must have blinked.
Frankly, one of the great things about “The 33” is the too-rare portrayal of South Americans as decent, hard-working people with loving families. It’s unusual enough that this look into their lives stands out, and that’s a little embarrassing.