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The 33 is a TV Movie of the Week, but a Big-Budget Good One

<i>The 33</i> is a TV Movie of the Week, but a Big-Budget Good One

DVD Release Date: February 16, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: November 13, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for a disaster sequence and some language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 120 min
Director: Patricia Riggen
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche, Gabriel Byrne, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rodrigo Santoro, Oscar Nuñez

Hollywood has a knack for turning real-ilfe stories into recognizable formulas, portraying unique circumstances in ways we’ve seen before, and The 33 is no different. Though based on a recent disaster, what unfolds here (and how) could just as easily been a contrived fictional plot pieced together by the usual tropes, designed to provoke our emotions in very calculated ways.

Yet ironically, for what it lacks in authenticity, The 33 still ends up being a satisfying retelling – more of a tribute, really – of the 2010 Chilean mine collapse and the heroes that emerged. And even with marketing-driven choices that compromise reality – from having everyone speak English (with Spanish accents) to casting several key roles with non-Latino name actors – The 33 will undoubtedly earn enthusiastic cheers from Hispanics while still being a crowd-pleaser for the masses.

Related: Discussing Faith with the Cast of The 33

Despite being a few years removed from the event, it's easy to recall the collapse that trapped a large team of Chilean miners. It garnered – and warranted – round-the-clock global media coverage for months on end. Given that it often felt like a movie playing out in real time, it should come as no surprise that this compressed dramatization plays out like your standard-fare disaster movie, and often at equally intensified levels.

From the start we're introduced to key people from the 33, pre-collapse, all formed to fit a traditional lineup of disaster movie characters. From the guy who decides to work on his day off to the young man with his first baby on the way, to many other archetypes in-between – both in and out of the mine (including a poll-sensitive Chilean President) – the setup is strictly by-the-book.

We're also given an over-simplified, idyllic sense of their lives, rather than a more nuanced, tougher portrait of these lower-income blue-collar communities, but that's to be expected when a movie's goal is to inspire rather than challenge. It's all fairly straightforward, right down to a callous, profit-driven owner ignoring a foreman's warnings about the mine's failing structural integrity.

Related: How Faith & Family Saved Lives in The 33

Things continue to follow a familiar template after the collapse occurs. Miners swing from solidarity to hysteria, families start to panic and fervently (at times irrationally) demand answers, and government officials clash over tensions between doing what's right and what's politically expedient.

Yet despite often feeling like a telenovela soap opera – including the catty conflict between one miner's wife and mistress, played for comic relief – The 33 succeeds on the strength of its cast's conviction, and a harrowing, visceral immediacy achieved by director Patricia Riggen (Girl in Progress and the upcoming Christian drama Miracles From Heaven).

Riggen doesn't dig deep for character nuances or thematic complexities, but very effectively stages the collapse and its aftermath. The drama may be heightened, but the production feels accurate. The fact that they filmed in an actual mine rather than on a soundstage certainly helps, but so too does Riggen's visual style and how it captures the action, from large scale destruction to small scale intimacy.

Antonio Banderas (Ruby Sparks) anchors the ensemble as the miner dubbed “Super Mario," who would lead the trapped men – which also includes Lou Diamond Phillips (TV's Longmire) and Oscar Nunez (TV's The Office) – through fear, uncertainty, and tactics for survival. Above ground, Juliette Binoche (Dan in Real Life) is particularly strong as the leader of the families who hold the government's rescue effort to task, as are Rodrigo Santoro (300) and Gabriel Byrne (TV's Vikings) who portray the engineers who work tirelessly to find a way where there isn't one.

We feel the danger, claustrophobia, utter helplessness, and borderline madness. Even the most overwrought (and unnecessary) dramatics still resonate, and the more fragile instances – from food depravation to desperate prayers – evoke our own anxious sympathies. Indeed, when prayer is all they have, it makes for the most affecting moments.

The 33 is a TV Movie Of The Week – but a good one, on a big budget scale. Even with such a conventional approach, there's no denying that The 33 still delivers a powerful and deeply emotional payoff. Sure, it's more well-made than well-told, and I don't know how well the film does right by the facts (at times the dramatic license is painfully obvious), but it does right by those 33 men, their families, what they endured, and what they overcame. And its absolutely convincing in affirming one of the most important ideals of all: to never ever give up.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Alcohol is consumed at a family party. Some cigarette smoking.
  • Language/Profanity: Five uses of the S-word, one B-word, on H-word, one crude sexual slang, and one use of the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Husband and wife flirting. Other moments of embracing and kissing. A subplot involving a mistress (played for comedy; no sexuality involved).
  • Violence/Other: Sequences of peril and life-threatening danger. Men with some blood wounds and injuries.

Publication date: November 12, 2015