An introductory note to The 33 informs viewers that 12,000 miners worldwide die annually in work accidents. Patricia Riggen's movie is about 33 who famously didn't, so surprise isn't an element.
Instead, The 33 pads along like the TV-movie that incredibly no one produced after the men's 2010 rescue from a collapsed gold and copper mine in Chile. Miraculous stories getting that much play in global news outlets — 69 days total — are ripe for the Lifetime treatment. Riggen therefore presents the "untold" story, and not altogether well.
The 33 is a grab bag of emotional proddings linked by a shared disaster. Out of necessity the screenplay — based on Hector Tobar's authorized by the miners — pares attention down to a few identified by easy strokes; a cold turkey alcoholic, an old guy days away from retirement, a philanderer juggling his wife and girlfriend.
Front and center is Antonio Banderas, making a nice comeback after a tough string of roles. Banderas plays the miners' de facto leader "Super" Mario Sepulveda, allowing the actor to show his lusty, paternal side above ground then seethe and suffer below. Banderas chews a lot of stony scenery as Mario referees what is written as a fairly cordial experience, given the circumstances.
The closest to Mario in character development isn't one of the 33 but Chile's minister of mining Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro) working to free them. Laurence's attention evolves from political expediency to doing enough to gain approval from a miner's sister (Juliette Binoche) before she slaps him again. Watching the French Oscar winner play the village's best empanada baker is a stretch.
Binoche isn't the movie's only unlikely casting choice as a Chilean. Gabriel Byrne's Irish accent and character actor Bob Gunton's Yankee whiteness sneak into their portrayals of a mining expert and Chile's president, respectively. Having everyone speak English while signs and TV graphics are in Spanish is patronizing and commercially motivated. The sole surrender to Chile's culture and subtitles is a campfire lament sung beautifully in Spanish; more would be welcome.
The same is true for Riggen's lone excursion into magical realism that is a signature of South American literature and cinema. The final food rations spark a mass hallucination among the miners, with favorite meals served by the women they love. It's a lovely scene nothing like anything coming before or after. The 33 could use one or two more like it.
Riggen's movie works with the repetitive precision of those massive drills digging out the miners; action on demand and emotions on cue. There's so much going on in so many lives that little gets more than fleeting attention. The 33 has a disappointing lack of depth for a movie about being trapped 2,400 feet below.
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