Friday, November 13, 2015

The 33: Buried beneath clichés

The 33 (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.13.15

The 2010 Copiapó mining accident, which trapped 33 men 2,300 feet underground after a catastrophic collapse within the 121-year-old copper-gold mine, is the stuff of legend: a tribute to heroism and indomitable human spirit, and a reminder that we are, indeed, capable of selflessly pulling together at times of extreme crisis.

As all of his fellow workers watch closely, Mario (Antonio Banderas, center) carefully
measures equal portions of their meager food supplies into 33 cups: the once-daily meal
that must sustain them all for as long as possible, while — they hope — rescue operations
proceed above ground.
It’s an incredible story, both in terms of what the men endured throughout their 69 days of captivity, and because of what took place on the surface, during what blossomed into an unprecedented world-wide effort to save them.

Sadly, director Patricia Riggen and her four (!) screenwriters fail to capture much of that drama in their oddly uninvolving film. Although their adaptation is based on Deep Down Dark — the best-selling account of the ordeal by Héctor Tobar, the only journalist granted access to the men and their families — this film is oddly shallow.

Despite a 127-minute running time, and some strong actors, we learn very little about most of these people; similarly, key details involving the above-ground rescue efforts are glossed over or omitted entirely.

Mostly, though, the film’s often larkish tone is simply wrong. Granted, tension can be maximized by occasional dollops of levity, but that’s a delicate balance, and Riggen makes hash of that recipe. Matters aren’t helped by an overly cheerful score from the late James Horner: a series of frivolous melodies that sound like the sort of hackneyed stuff that accompanied “south of the border sequences” in 1960s TV shows.

As the final score Horner completed before his untimely death in June, it’s an unfortunate postscript to an otherwise exemplary cinema legacy: This music too often trivializes these events.

We meet some of the primary characters during a typically jovial gathering, most of the miners and their families having bonded through their shared knowledge of this dangerous work. Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas) is the respected family man, with a doting wife and teenage daughter; Álex Vega (Mario Casas), a skilled young mechanic, chooses to work the mine because the pay is better, and thus offers greater promise to the life he wishes to build with his pregnant wife, Jessica (Cote de Pablo).

Luis “Don Lucho” Urzua (Lou Diamond Phillips), the shift supervisor, has long waged bitter arguments with mining company managers who ignore mounting evidence of the mine’s growing instability. Edison Peña (Jacob Vargas) is the token goofball and wannabe Elvis impersonator; Yonni Barrios (Oscar Nuñez) blatantly juggles a wife (Adrianna Barazza) and mistress (Elizabeth de Rasso) who live within shouting distance of each other.

Dario Segovia (Juan Pablo Raba), a hopeless alcoholic, has estranged himself from the sister (Juliette Binoche, as María) who nonetheless looks after him; Mario Gomez (Gustavo Angarita), the eldest in the group, looks forward to his retirement.

Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta) endures constant harassment — some of it decidedly racist — because, as a Bolivian, he’s the only man who isn’t Chilean. Ironic, then, that he’s one of the few characters granted enough depth, and screen time, to become a distinct individual.

That’s eight men out of 33, only four of whom — Mario, Don Lucho, Alex and Carlos — dominate the events underground. The rest remain nameless and mostly faceless: part of the indistinguishable crowd that grumbles as a group, with one man or another occasionally involved in a squabble brought on by strain and desperation.

Instead, Riggen and her scripters devote an excessive amount of time to Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile’s newly appointed minister of mining, who seizes this catastrophe as a means of proving, to distrustful citizens, that the government does care about them. Suggestions of a budding romance between Laurence and María are bizarrely out of place: a total Hollywood-style contrivance.

Many previous films have done a far better job of depicting people trapped by claustrophobic circumstances almost certain to prove fatal, from The Flight of the Phoenix and The Poseidon Adventure to more serious studies such as Das Boot.

Riggen, best known for light-hearted family fare and one modest drama — 2007’s Under the Same Moon — simply lacks the skills for so ambitious a project. In her hands, these characters are reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes: Mario shouts a lot and makes let’s-pull-together speeches; Don Lucho frets over not having been more insistent about the mine’s instability; Dario suffers withdrawal.

The most successfully sobering moments come from the situation, rather than its victims: most notably each time we watch Mario carefully ration their meager food supplies — mostly cookies and cans of tuna — as the days stretch on, following the initial mine collapse. All too soon, Mario is dividing a single can of tuna once per day, carefully dumping small spoonfuls into 33 plastic cups.

These moments are powerful, mostly because Riggen plays them silently, the men eschewing the overly melodramatic dialog too frequently supplied at other times.

On the other hand, I’ve no idea what to make of the film’s jump-the-shark moment: a shared hallucination during which the trapped men imagine their various loved ones serving a huge banquet, in a tableau oddly akin to the Last Supper. It’s flat-out weird, and it brings the film to a grinding halt.

Events topside are similarly unbalanced. On the one hand, we get a strong sense of village unity, as the families — led by María and Jessica — establish a de facto community, dubbed Camp Esperanza (Hope), facing the guarded mining company fence. These scenes are genuinely touching, although more in the sense of abstract spirit; once again, we don’t learn much about any of the other women.

Laurence, meanwhile, locks horns with Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne), the chief engineer brought in to find a way of determining whether the men below are even alive, let alone rescue-able. Byrne is quite persuasive in this role, particularly when Sougarret explains the difficulties — most damningly, drill “drift” — that jeopardize any effort to reach the classroom-size “Refuge” where it is assumed the men have gathered, if possible.

Bob Gunton is appropriately officious as Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera, who initially frets over the notion of snatching responsibility for the rescue effort, from the feckless mining company. Later, as the world press descends, Piñera worries more about his political standing, should it become necessary — as becomes more likely, day by day — to suspend the entire operation.

It should be mentioned that Chile still was recovering from the 8.8-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami the country had endured only six months earlier: a detail that would go a long way toward explaining Piñera’s behavior, and the civilian attitude ... and yet a detail completely ignored by this film.

And then — suddenly — three international drilling teams arrive on site, from Canada, South Africa (using an Australian borer) and the United States: a development that occurs as if by magic, with no explanation. Only the American effort is granted a face: James Brolin, in a cameo as Jeff Hart, the Denver-based drilling engineer who abandons operations at U.S. Army bases in Afghanistan, to take charge in Chile.

That’s a pretty big deal, and the real-life Hart deserves far better than the short shrift he gets here.

The same could be said for all the other actual people depicted so insubstantially. Indeed, the film’s most powerful moment comes at the very end, during a black-and-white montage that shows the actual 33 miners today, still together, enjoying a well-deserved moment of shared glory on a quiet beach.

I’d argue, however, that this poignant scene is insufficient reward for the disappointing drama that precedes it.

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