Movie Review: The 33
By Ben Gruchow
November 18, 2015
Movies based on real-life events - particularly the more recent ones - have it a little tougher than straightforward fiction narratives. When an incident is still housed in what is culturally still short-term memory, like the 2010 San José mine collapse in Chile, the movie based on it has a very short leash as far as schmaltz. What we tolerate and can even be attracted to in something like Titanic as far as music and big gestures and broad, energetic emotional displays fares much worse when the situation involves something we can remember being a part of in the recent past. This leaves few choices for interpretation for the director of a “based-on-real-events” movie, and the only two types that are really failsafe are those that are entirely clinical and academic, or those that are entirely visceral and eschew any large point. This is why 2006’s United 93 succeeded as a film, and why the later World Trade Center bore the signs of struggle with subject matter that was relatively easy as far as temperament and outcome.
By roughly the 10-minute mark of Patricia Riggen’s The 33, we know that we are not going to get a visceral or clinical film about the disaster that trapped 33 miners half a mile underground for months. We actually have our first significant inkling to that well beforehand, at the first scene with dialogue. This is a film set in a Spanish-speaking country, starring almost without exception a Spanish cast, by a Mexican director. And yet it’s almost entirely in English - and not particularly heavily-accented English, at that. This even holds true for written words, as in the egregious display of the note sent up by the miners when they were first discovered. Spanish in real life, English in the film.
Having a Spanish screenplay and Spanish dialogue, though, would not have begun to fix the problems inherent to The 33. Not the least of this is a colossally messy narrative that wants simultaneously to be a rousing story of confinement and survival, a suspenseful technical procedural, and an indictment of lax bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance, and lacks the stomach or technical aptitude to focus on any one of them for more than the length of a scene or two. It’s pretty surprising, actually, that Riggen and editor Michael Tronick are able to pull a halfway-effective final quarter or so out of the morass, but manage it they did. This can pretty easily be attributed to the inherent magnitude of the incident, rather than any particular cinematic success.
The plot follows the broad outlines of reality: 33 miners of varying ages, health, and aptitude for the job are bused from their home city of Copiapó to the San José copper mine, which is identified in the film and in reality as a 120-year-old mine with multiple structural and safety issues. The San Esteban Mining Company is advised of this, in a terse scene in the film’s opening minutes between the shift foreman and the owner of the company. The owner here is obliged to play the role of callous villain, concerned only with profit, and he fulfills the obligation in a way that inspires belief on the part of the viewer who knows about San Esteban’s safety record in reality.