Review: 'The 33,' true story of struggle for survival

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“The 33” is an amazing story well-told, simple as that. It’s true, it’s inspiring, it’s harrowing, it’s breathtaking, and every time you fear the movie is going to make a wrong move, it makes a right one instead.

True, this is a film in which all Chileans miraculously speak accented English and in which a glamorous French actress plays a Chilean sandwich-maker, but somehow director Patricia Riggen rolls right over these incongruities. It helps that the story she’s telling is so incredible, but Riggen’s strong sense of pace and dynamics is undeniable.

In 2010, a copper mine in Chile collapsed when the mountain overhead shifted. The 33 miners working the mine were a couple of thousand feet down, so they had no chance to race to the surface; instead, they ran down further into the bowels of the mine, to a supposed safe spot.

Miraculously, all 33 made it to the bottom alive. But what they found there was disheartening. A locker that was supposed to be filled with food had hardly any at all. Metal ladders that were supposed to lead to the surface led nowhere; the mining company hadn’t bothered to complete them.

A miner named Mario (Antonio Banderas, reminding the world how good he can be) became the group’s default leader, doling out the food cautiously (try splitting a can of tuna among 33 starving men), calming raw nerves and keeping hopes up.

Meanwhile, on the surface, the mining company initially wants to just write off the miners as either hopelessly trapped or dead, but the people of the town — whose husbands, children, parents, friends are down below — gather at the site. Led by a feisty sandwich-maker (Juliette Binoche, somehow pulling it off) whose estranged brother is trapped, they begin raising a ruckus.

Soon the government and the media are involved, and a drilling expert (Gabriel Byrne) is brought in to try to locate and reach the men. A popular Chilean TV personality visits the site and shines the spotlight even further on the situation. Meanwhile, down deep in the mine, jokes about cannibalism are becoming less and less funny.

Eventually — and it’s a long, tense eventually — the drilling team strikes gold and a hole leading down to the men is completed. Supplies are sent down, starvation is no longer an issue, communication is established.

There are only two problems, both dire. One is how to get the men out of there; the other is the giant rock above them, which is the size of two Empire State buildings, continues to shift. At some point it will probably crush all the survivors.

Based on a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Hector Tobar, the wonder of the story isn’t merely the physical struggle of the survival and rescue efforts, it’s the fact that these men spent months inside a pressure-cooker environment without ever fully cracking (note the word fully).

Director Riggen can’t go in depth with every person above and below, but she and the script dash about enough to give a wide spectrum view of the anxieties and personalities involved. It’s old-fashioned, solid storytelling. And what a story.

‘The 33’


Rated PG-13 for a disaster sequence and some language

Running time: 120 minutes