The statistics in mining are dismal. Twelve thousand miners die in accidents every year across the world. Owners and regulators are not held responsible for assuring their safety, as illustrated by the owner of the mine in this film based on a real event in Chile in 2010. When one of the miners brings him one of many broken mirrors indicating that the mountain is shifting dangerously, the owner turns a deaf ear and tells him to get his men to work.
Sure enough, on this fateful day, after 33 workers are driven down 2300 feet, the mountain makes a major shift, resulting in huge quaking and debris falling down and bursting through the shafts. Ultimately, 700 thousand tons of diorite gets wedged above the miners, trapping them. When they look up, they can see it, and one says, “That was the heart of the mountain; she finally broke.”
Fortunately, none of the miners are seriously hurt, and they’re in a space called “The Refuge”, which is supposed to have a radio, food supplies, and a ladder up to an opening. But the radio doesn’t work; the ladder was never completed to the top, and the food is only enough to last three days, if that. Of course, there is an immediate struggle over the food, with some ready to dive right in. Even the one in charge, Don Lucho (Phillips) is inclined to give up. In his 25 years in the mines, five have collapsed, and there were never any survivors. He also knows from past experience that usually little effort is made to drill down to trapped workers.
This is when Mario Sepulveda (Banderas) steps in to raise hope and reasonably argue that the food needs to be rationed and divided equally among all, telling them that if they don’t ration and they are rescued, they’ll all be dead anyway in a short time. He’s persuasive, and the men allow him to apportion the food fairly over the whole ordeal.
But will they be rescued? Morale is not always a given; even outside the mine there are those who want to give up immediately or at each setback. It’s the few who press on that make the difference, and one of these is a young government minister, Laurence Golborne (Santoro), who has received a strong appeal (as well as a slap) from the older sister of Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), Maria (Binoche). Large numbers of family members hover outside the closed gates to the mine, refusing to leave until they get word of their loved ones’ fate.
The minister involves the President of Chile (Gunton), news about the disaster is broadcast throughout the world’s networks, and three countries send powerful drills they hope will cut through the huge rock. It’s thought that it will take eight days, and no one knows for sure that the men are even alive. The challenge is first to locate The Refuge, and then direct a drill to the right place, compensating for the inevitable deviations the drills make as they go down. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film is on the 17th day when one of the drills finally breaks through (after nine of them broke) to the right place, and the miners attach a message to it that will be read when the drill is withdrawn, verifying that they are alive.
Sadly, the mission will be extended to the 62nd day and additional equipment like a powerful magnet can be obtained before a cage can be send down to bring up the men one by one.
Understandably with this many people involved in such treacherous work (there is always a risk that the drilling will cause the top of the mountain to cave in on the men inside), ancillary dramas take place both inside and outside the mine, guilt is rampant, relationships become uncertain, and competitions arise. Director Patricia Riggen and her colleagues do a fine job in highlighting these, successfully giving us a break from the rigors and tension around the rescue. We begin to learn enough about the townspeople that we really care about what happens to them. We perhaps could have done without the drama of one man, his wife, and his mistress, but is was humorous. Filming took place in two real mines in Colombia.
Strong points of The 33 include balancing the substantial technical information with the dramatic vignettes, a well-cast group of actors (most notably, Banderas, Binoche, Santoro, and Brolin), music (James Horner), cinematography (Checco Varese), and demonstrations of how people change under these circumstances and learn from their experience and others’ insights. It was clever for the director to require even the English speakers to have a Spanish accent. That the miners, some of whom consulted on the film, were not apparently compensated adequately by the filmmakers detracts from its heroic story. They have filed a suit, saying they were misled about the contract by their lawyers. Many have continued physical and psychological after-effects that need ongoing attention.
Many of us followed the Chilean mine disaster in the news when it happened, but this film gives us an inside look that is not only informational, but instructive in ethical conduct.
A well-balanced, insightful look at a major disaster.
Grade: B+ By Donna R. Copeland