“Thirty three men trapped underground, and we don’t even know if they’re alive?” ~ Sebastian Pinera
“It’s not a question of if it falls, but when.” ~ Andre Sougarret
“I’m not leaving without him.” ~ Maria Segova
“That’s not a rock. That’s the heart of the mountain. She finally broke.” ~ Mario Sepulveda
In 2010, the world was transfixed to a two month long story coming out of the high deserts of Chile, where thirty three miners, trapped deep beneath the earth after a collapse, were discovered alive. Massive efforts were undertaken to rescue them, and the story had an uplifting ending, broadcast to the eyes of the planet. The startling tale, something we just couldn’t believe if it didn’t really happen, is now in theatres with an international cast in the new film The 33, by Mexican director Patricia Riggen.
We’re introduced to the various workers in the San Jose mine, a copper and gold mine in the Atacama desert, an inhospitable place. The owner of the mine has not been taking seriously the concerns that the mountain is becoming increasingly unstable. The men working the mine do this despite the danger. And of course the worst happens- the collapse occurs, and it is catastrophic. All of the workers survive, but they find themselves well and truly trapped, their communication with the outside world cut off, and their supplies low. Above, the company drags its heels, the families maintain a vigil and press for something to be done, and the government intervenes in what becomes a rescue effort.
Watching this film, I remembered the story as it had unfolded on the news. From the stunning revelation that the miners were all alive to the final extractions of each and every one of them, it was a story that spoke to the strength of the human will and the tenacity of human resourcefulness. So of course it was inevitable that someone would end up making a movie about it. The challenge in this case is to make a movie, maintaining suspense, when everyone knows how it all ended.
Patricia Riggen and the writers Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, and Jose Rivera worked with the miners and their families, crafting a film that tells the story both above and below, focusing on several key figures in the event. With thirty three men below and many people above, there’s really only time to focus on some of them, so some characters are more fleshed out than others. Filming was done in South America, including near the actual site. It has the feel of a disaster movie early on, working into more of a suspenseful film after the cataclysm as those above and below find themselves dealing with the situation at hand. Certainly Riggen handles the technical aspects of the collapse very well- it feels harrowing when it happens, and she captures the claustrophobic feeling of this space throughout the film, as well as the tension.
The cast were well chosen, coming from a multitude of countries. Bob Gunton, who’s been in countless character roles on television and film, appears as the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera. His minister for mining, Laurence Golborne, is played by the actor Rodrigo Santoro. The character is most directly responsible for overseeing the rescue efforts, while letting the people doing the actual job get their job done. This is the first time I’ve seen him in anything that I liked- he previously played the villain in the 300 movies, as well as a retconned-in character in the television series Lost, characters I found irritating, but that was less because of the actor and more because of the writing. The two characters find themselves dealing with a situation that is both crisis- particularly in terms of initial response- and then opportunity.
The Irish actor Gabriel Byrne turns up in a role with a good deal to do, as the engineer Andre Sougarret, the man overseeing the rescue efforts. Byrne gives the character the sense of competence and professionalism you’d expect, both out of the actor and out of a man in that profession. He’s facing a serious challenge here, and as daunting as it is, he lives up to it. Juliette Binoche turns up in the film as Maria Segova, whose brother Dario (Juan Pablo Raba) is among those in the mine, and with whom she has some unfinished business to resolve. Maria becomes a strong voice among the families of the miners, determined to see them brought back safely. Binoche plays to that- she’s the sort of actress who could make reading the phone book fascinating.
There is a problem of course in filming miners in dark places- how does one tell one character from the other if they’re all grubby, in helmets or masks? Some of the miners get more exposure than others. Raba’s role as Dario provides for some of the family drama- the rift between he and his sister provides some of the tension as well as the regret. Jacob Vargas provides some levity as Edison “Elvis” Pena, so nicknamed because of his fondness for Elvis music. Mario Casas is Alex Vega, a miner with medical issues of his own trapped in a place he’d rather not be in.
The two actors who really get the most exposure among the miners, and who give the strongest performances of the film, are Lou Diamond Phillips and Antonio Banderas. Phillips plays the shift foreman Luis Urzua. The character already has reservations about the state of the mine early on, and there’s something of a pessimistic streak in the man that plays out in the film. And yet there’s a strong sense of the man as capable and organized, things that Phillips plays to in his performance.
Banderas plays Mario Sepulveda, a man who became a public face for the miners, and a strong leader among them, particularly early on while no one knows they’re actually alive. He’s a voice of reason for the others, handling a crisis in just the right way, defusing tensions and despair, and keeping things in order. As much stress as he must feel, Sepulveda succeeds in keeping the others from panic, and these elements that Banderas plays to bring out the best in the actor.
The film does trivialize certain elements- the early political missteps, some stories being set aside in favour of others, the fact that the miners have not been properly compensated, some Hollywood fudging of facts, for instance. It is a big story, something that has to be condensed into a couple of hours, but The 33 does hold our attention, keeping its audience on edge and tense. Yes, we know how it all ends, but watching it unfold is compelling, and ultimately inspiring.