The problem with a rescue story is how to keep the audience engaged when the end seems obvious. A movie about the rescued miners in Chile seems like a no-brainer when it comes to cinematic storytelling. Survival stories are naturally rife with conflict and human triumph. But when everybody knows the ending how do you make it count? The 33, a would-be feel-good movie that aims to tug at your heartstrings, is not the answer.
In August of 2010, 33 men went over a thousand feet down into a gold mine in Chile. The mountain caved in on top of itself, trapping the men in a small refuge. They had enough food and water to last only so many days, let alone enough to subsist 33 people. Mario (Antonio Banderas) must keep his fellow miners from breaking into violence, while Lawrence (Rodrigo Santoro) must scramble the forces of the government to retrieve the miners with the pressure of the entire world watching. The men spent over 65 harrowing days trapped underground before finally reuniting with their loved ones.
The 33 misses widely, relying on easy sentiment and generalities rather than exploring its entombed characters on more than a fundamental level. Just because certain plot turns are expected from a keen audience, whether the Titanic is going down or, say, in another survival story that James Franco is going to cut his arm off, it doesn’t mean that the proceeding time is merely setup for the predictable. Even plot turns that are predictable can be wholly satisfying if the storytelling earns the payoff. Therefore, while the world knows that the 33 miners will eventually be rescued relatively unscathed, that doesn’t mean that the movie is off the hook until that moment. It needs to make the scene count, and the best way to do so is to get us emotionally invested in these men as they struggle with their fears. That is the film’s biggest failing. It was expected that 33 characters would be a tad unwieldy as far as divvying up screen time, so we concentrate on about five or six actual “characters,” while the rest of the trapped miners are glorified extras (they’re even listed in the end credits as Miner #8, Miner #9, etc. rather than by their names). The characters fall into rather one-note territories, from the Guy Who Feels He’s Let Down His Miners, the Guy Who Feels Burdened as the Leader, the Comical Relief Guy, the Old Guy Close to Retirement, The Young Guy with a Baby on the Way, the Recovering Addict with Trust Issues, and the New Guy (a.k.a. The Bolivian). Even though the cave-in occurs about 15 minutes into the movie, we don’t really get to know any of these highlighted characters on a deeper level than the basic descriptions they’re categorized with. It’s as if The 33 expects us to be engaged in the survival struggle without people worth watching.
The script divides its focus among a few camps, which further makes the miners feel less developed. Garnering substantial screen time are the minister of mining and his team of engineers and Maria Segovia (Juliette Binoche), an empanada-vendor who becomes the face of the anguished family members. These factions vie for screen time but they never truly present much more than what is on the surface. It’s a lot of pacing and brow-wiping. I’m puzzled at how little the movie makes use of the miners’ family members. This seems like a story made for flashbacks to help tinge the struggle with heavier dramatic weight and irony. The problem with The 33 is that the rescue story isn’t as interesting from a conflict standpoint because it’s more a matter of a race against time than a matter of logistics. Digging through the bed of rock is arduous but it’s nothing terribly unexpected from a technology standpoint. It doesn’t help that The Martian is a recent hit film and a superior movie survival story, at least in its telling. The focus was tighter and Matt Damon’s character was beset with conflict after conflict. He was an active participant to lead to his survival. In contrast, the miners are left to hold onto their sanity and hopes while they wait for extrication. That struggle can be illuminating on the psyche and how people can pull together in times of extreme distress, but that’s not this movie. Sure, they pull together but it’s mostly the occasional inspirational speech from Mario and the reliance on the emotional push of James Horner’s score (his last in life). The movie relies on easy sentiment to fill the many gaps of its characterization.
There is one standout moment in the movie that gives you enough false hope about where The 33 could have gone with its storytelling. As the men pass around their daily ration, a squirt of water with some tuna inside it, the men fantasize a feast of their favorite foods delivered lovingly by their family members. It’s an exquisite visual detour that succinctly communicates the desires of the men and their mental defenses. It’s powered by a lilting musical score that makes it feel like a divine moment of relief for these weary men, and it’s visually playful without going over the top or losing the emotional truth. Then, just as succinctly, it transitions back to the dreary reality with as much skill as it began. It’s a terrific moment in an otherwise safe and sappy movie, and the artistry hints at the more visually poetic and psychologically probing movie that could have been. Going back to 127 Hours, Franco was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place but director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) opened it up as a movie. The 33 is just too inert.
It may be slight but I can’t help but feel that the movie should have been told in Spanish rather than English. Now I know that English is going to greatly improve the movie’s mass appeal at the American box-office (though that didn’t seem to make a dent), but it harms the movie’s authenticity. On the contrary, I could forgive the white-washing of transforming the Spanish family into a white clan of Brits in the 2004 tsunami drama The Impossible but that was because their struggle was powerfully and universally felt and unrelated to ethnicity, which also assists in the argument of why change their ethnicity, but I digress. With The 33, the struggle is so specific to a nation and its people that there is some degree of authenticity lost in the actors speaking English in a multitude of accents meant to approximate Chilean. It’s also a bit strange to watch actors of varied backgrounds playing Chileans including a Frenchwoman (Binoche), an Irishman (Gabriel Byrne), and the warden from The Shawshank Redemption as the president of Chile. These are small things but when packaged together, and with the movie’s reliance on easy sentimentality, it’s hard not to feel like The 33 is a middling TV movie writ large.
The 33 is an acceptable story with a bevy of fine actors who give fine performances while we wait for the swell of the music to hit all the emotional highs. It’s effective at points and its heart seems to be in the right place, even giving each real-life member of the titular 33 a coda appearance before the credits (we’re told their lawsuit against the mining company apparently netted them zero money). The problem with The 33 is that it doesn’t make the men feel much more than a group of numbers, figures to eventually and predictably be saved, without giving us enough insight into their humanity. It feels like a disservice to their story and the compromises hobble its artistic latitude. It feels far too impersonal and rote, which are crippling attributes for a feel-good true story. It’s not fair but I fondly recall McFarland U.S.A. as a formulaic feel-good movie that nails its big moments while dropping its audience into a community of characters that feel fleshed out and given depth and relatability. If you want to know more about the Chilean miners, skip this movie and read the book. If you want a feel-good movie that genuinely makes you feel good, then skip The 33 and watch McFarland U.S.A instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+