The real-life story of the 33 Chilean miners buried alive and then rescued from an aging gold and copper mine in 2010 contains enough heated melodrama and passionate outrage along with a hard-earned, feel-good climax to sustain any motion picture.
So “The 33” can’t help being a gripping film that has you shaking your head over the true miracle of the miners’ rescue. What’s missing though is the beating heart of real drama, the thing that will take you beyond a recitation of the events of those 69 days and into the terror, grit — and hope.
I haven’t read Héctor Tobar’s book, “Deep Down Dark,” that served as the basis for a screenplay worked over by four writers, nor have I sorted out composite characters from real ones and true incidents from those concocted to shorten 69 days into a two-plus hours movie.
I don’t completely mind a Latin American story told almost entirely in English with an international cast that includes Juliette Binoche, Antonio Banderas and Gabriel Byrne. But you wonder what a Chilean cast and filmmakers might have done with this story.
The film’s Mexican-born director, Patricia Riggen, marshals her resources well to tell, in effect, three stories — that of the miners trapped 200 stories beneath the surface, the desperate families demanding the government do something to rescue their loved ones and the rescuers themselves faced with yet overcoming almost insurmountable challenges.
The key characters underground are Banderas’ Mario Sepúlveda, who emerges as the leader and organizer; Lou Diamond Phillips’ “Don Lucho,” a respected shift supervisor who knows more about the death trap the mine truly is than he lets on; and Mario Casas’s Alex, the youngster who took the dangerous job because his wife is six months pregnant.
A fictional character has been added, Juan Pablo Raba’s Dario, an alcoholic bitter about his life and job, who must, in true Hollywood fashion, be redeemed by the experience.
Up on top Juliette Binoche — does she ever play French anymore? — handles all the histrionics as the sister of the estranged Dario, who fights like a tigress to push the company and then government to do more to rescue her brother.
It’s not this fine actress’ fault but not for one moment does this character feel “real.” She is a convenient fiction.
Rodrigo Santoro plays Chile’s newly appointed Minister of Mining — welcome to the job! — who tries to do the right thing only he’s in over his head while Gabriel Byrne looks perennially worried as the chief engineer, the one who must actually figure out how to drill down to reach the trapped miners.
James Brolin, in a token role as an American driller, has so little to do, maybe a couple of shouted lines at most, that you half expect him to hand out cards identifying himself as Josh Brolin’s dad.
The film proceeds in this Hollywood manner, including that moment when The Idea hits, how one person says something to another person and then a lightbulb goes on: Aha, I know how to reach the miners!
Riggen smartly uses actual TV news footage from an array of international sources to convey in a kind of shorthand the strategies of the rescue mission, eventually followed by a worldwide audience.
The experiences of those miners, their families and rescuers must have been a much more feral experience than the one portrayed here. Occasional bad behavior and misconduct, below and above, is smoothed over far too easily. People remain civilized for the most part and corruption rarely intrudes.
The film has a gloss that doesn’t suit the situation or the environment. The story itself is never less than compelling so the filmmakers coast a little too easily on that rather than explore darker currents that undoubtedly flowed through this story.
Tech credits are outstanding as the production utilized two actual mines in Colombia to create the stunning play of lights and shadows deep underground while the arresting vistas of Chile’s Alacama Desert, very close to where the real incident took place, provide a you-are-there sensation.
DP Checco Varese makes the cavernous though crumbling mine into a thing of glittery wonder yet terror. The late James Horner brings Latin accents and Andean instruments into his music score.
The table was definitely set for an emotional and gritty melodrama but Hollywood formula played much too big a role.
Opens: November 13, 2015 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Alcon Entertainment presents a Phoenix Pictures production
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Rodrigo Santoro, Juliette Binoche, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gabriel Byrne, James Brolin, Mario Casas, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Oscar Nuñez, Tenoch Huerta, Marco Treviño, Adriana Barazza, Kate del Castillo, Cote de Pablo, Elizabeth De Razzo, Naomi Scott, Gustavo Angarita, Alejandro Goic, Bob Gunton, Mario Kreutzberger
Director: Patricia Riggen
Screenwriters: Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten, Michael Thomas
Screen story by: José Rivera
Based on the book by: Héctor Tobar
Producers: Mike Medavoy, Edward McGurn, Robert Katz
Executive producers: Carlos Eugenio Lavin, Leopoldo Enriquez, Alan Zhang, José Luis Escolar
Director of photography: Checco Varese
Production designer: Marco Niro
Music: James Horner
Costume designer: Paco Delgado
Editor: Michael Tronick
PG-13 rating, 127 minutes