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Review: The 33 (2015)

The 33 (2015)

Directed by: Patricia Riggen

Premise: Based on true events. Thirty-three Chilean miners are trapped 2,000 feet underground after the collapse of the San Jose copper and gold mine. The government leads a rescue effort but food and drinkable water are in short supply.

What Works: The 33 is a satisfying story of survival. Unlike many contemporary disaster movies like San Andreas, the movie maintains a credible scale and the mine collapse and the subsequent drama have a dirty and earthy visual texture. Throughout the first half of the movie there is a palatable sense of urgency. The miners only have supplies for three days and they are trapped over a mile beneath the surface. In dramatizing the rescue mission, the filmmakers handle the exposition well. They don’t get bogged down in details but they give the viewer enough information to understand what has happened, what the rescuers are trying to do, and what the stakes are for the miners. This portion of the movie is the most dramatic as the entombed miners struggle to extend their supplies and the rescue workers try to get to them. Something that The 33 does especially well is to link the immediate struggle for survival with media coverage and politics. When the plight of the trapped miners blows up into an international story it becomes a concern for the government; as Chilean President Piñera (Bob Gunton) states at one point, the survival of his administration is tied to the survival of the miners. The circumstances of the story switch in its second half and The 33 becomes a survival movie of a different sort. After establishing a lifeline between the surface and the survivors, the miners are given supplies to subsist upon but they also become aware of their status as celebrities which leads to tensions within the group. The time underground also takes a psychological toll on the survivors, which plays out very effectively in a creative “last supper” sequence in which the men imagine sharing a meal with their loved ones. This scene is unusual and it effectively puts the viewer in the psychological headspace of the miners.

What Doesn’t: The 33 is a dramatization of a well-known story. The plight of the trapped Chilean miners captured the attention of the world in 2010 and was subject to play-by-play coverage on international news outlets. That creates a challenge for this movie that it never fully overcomes. Viewers will already know the ending and The 33 is never quite able to suspend viewers’ foreknowledge so that we give in to the drama. The film also fails to provide any new information about the event or the people involved. This is exactly the story that was told to us in news broadcasts and there are no surprises. The 33 only characterizes a handful of these guys and for the most part they remain exactly who they were at the beginning of the movie. No one is changed through this traumatic event and everyone is exactly who they appear to be on the outset. The 33 also downplays some of the most interesting aspects of this story. It is quite clear that the San Esteban Mining Company was negligent (if not criminally than at least professionally) as to the safety of their employees. As the end of the film makes clear, no one was held responsible for the mine collapse nor were the survivors provided any sort of restitution. That’s the overlooked aspect of this story. The 33 frames the event only as a matter of survival. But there is a larger and potentially provocative idea here regarding the value of the miners’ lives, their employer’s disregard for their safety, and the way that the news media forced the recognition of the miners’ humanity. That’s all ignored in favor of a simplistic rescue story.

Bottom Line: The 33 is a satisfying survival story. It’s overall an average movie but it tells this story well enough.

Episode: #571 (November 29, 2015)