How do you dramatize the unthinkable? On August 5, 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped when the 100-year-old gold and copper mine in which they were working collapsed around them. For weeks, no one knew if they were alive or dead. But 69 days later, after a team of international drilling experts had worked around the clock, every one was brought safely to the surface. The 33, directed by Patricia Riggen, makes a valiant effort to tell this harrowing story onscreen, and there are moments when every shifting plate clicks right into place. In the end, though, the picture stumbles, and it may not completely be the fault of the filmmakers. Unless you drastically alter the details of real life, they don’t always translate meaningfully to the screen. But at the very least, The 33 errs on the side of honorability in telling the men’s stories.
Riggen takes great care in setting the scene, underscoring just how much these dirty, dangerous jobs mean to these men, among them Darío (Juan Pablo Raba), an alcoholic who has become estranged from his only family member, his sister, María (Juliette Binoche, in a stock earth-mother role), and Edison (Jacob Vargas), a jovial Elvis impersonator. The picture was filmed in the Atacama Desert, just kilometers away from the actual mine; cinematographer Checco Varese captures the rugged, dispiriting beauty of the place, all golden and dry, like a forgotten planet. The action toggles between the story of the trapped men below and the families and rescuers waiting and working above; ironically, one of the chief problems with The 33 is that when we’re above ground, we long to be below, with the men.