Silver Screen: The Thirty-Three **1/2
In 2010 the whole world was transfixed by the months-long effort to rescue thirty-three miners trapped under a collapsed mountain in Chile. The real-time, real-life saga was far more compelling that the dramatic retelling The Thirty-Three, a respectable but only fitfully interesting account of the incident.
The Thirty-Three is the sort of movie that would inevitably have been fodder for a made-for-TV movie two decades ago, back when TV networks still did that sort of thing. Something about it never feels quite suited to a big-screen feature. Perhaps it’s that the high drama is mostly just a lot of guys stranded in a dark room, waiting, and that we already know everyone survives. Or perhaps it’s that the team of screenwriters, working from Hector Tobar’s book Deep Down Dark, just don’t know how to separate the gold nuggets from the tedious sediment around it.
With her strong opening, director Patricia Riggen makes an early case for The Thirty-Three as a feature, beginning with the miner’s claustrophobic descent into the earth and culminating in a harrowing collapse scene straight out of a Devlin/Emmerich disaster flick. Riggen does a nice job giving the audience a sense of the mine’s immensity. The massive multitiered cavern was stacked like a tremendous wedding cake with each circular level large enough to accommodate hulking excavation equipment and fat-bodied trucks. The collapse is like a skyscraper imploding.
After much cinematic running and yelling, the miners arrive in the refuge chamber, which is stocked with three days’ rations. Foreman Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips) feels responsible for the men’s safety and threatens to sink into despair, but thoughtful alpha dog Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) takes charge. He buoys the men’s spirits and organizes the food-and-water rationing regimen.
Much of The Thirty-Three’s troubles stem from the paradox that the one thing it can do that news footage could not is place the audience inside the collapsed mine, but most of the action after the collapse occurs on the surface.
Riggen and her writers aren’t entirely sure how to focus their attention, so they spread it around. Mining minister Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) is fitted into the role of hero-advocate, assisted by blue-collar rescue leaders played by Gabriel Byrne and James Brolin. The families who demand action from the mine owners and the government are mostly represented by María Segovia (Juliette Binoche), who advocates on behalf of her estranged brother and helps wrangle the ladies at Camp Hope, including the squabbling wife and mistress of one miner. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera (Bob Gunton) gets a bit of screen time, too.
Between the sprawling crew aboveground and thirty-three dudes below, there are too many characters to juggle. To save time, Riggen leaves most of the technical explanations of the rescue effort to news clips of Anderson Cooper and his cohorts. The effect is that the fascinating mechanics of the rescue operation are glazed over with footage we’ve already seen. The technical details, the odd little society that grew around the disaster site, the cottage industry of pro-miner merch and their sudden worldwide notoriety— these are all elements of a potentially fascinating movie, but they’re glossed over in favor of underbaked human drama.
The only ace The Thirty-Three has down in the hole is Banderas, who singlehandedly elevates his scenes with castoff TV actors and bit players whose characters’ names we never learn. Banderas began his career as a thickly accented pretty boy too easily relegated to Latin-lover roles. Truth is, he was just learning to speak English on the set of Philadelphia and has too rarely been given substantial roles. He has spectacular ability, but most of his best work has been Spanish-language fare, especially his collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar.
Not only does The Thirty-Three not have enough Antonio Banderases to go around— not even enough of the one we’ve got— but it suffers from a shortfall of Latin actors. Subbing in talented movie-man-of-many-ethnicities Lou Diamond Phillips is one thing— he’s Filipino but has played Mexican, Cuban, and Native American characters— but some of the other casting choices are wildly distracting, particularly Binoche, the whitest and most French white French lady alive, and Gunton, whose Southern drawl oozes over the plate to mix with his stilted Chilean accent and makes something truly unpalatable.
The Thirty-Three lets a little light into the miners’ chamber. But their story would almost certainly be better served by a documentary. Maybe we could have the best of both worlds by just paying Banderas to read aloud the pertinent Wikipedia page.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.