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The 33 – A Film Review

November 20, 2015

Hollywood treatment of Chilean mining disaster raises awareness, questions

33 posterI was bubbling over with questions after seeing The 33, a new film about the 2010 mining accident that buried 33 miners alive in Chile’s San Jose mine. But I was also concerned that the filmmakers had chosen Hollywood star power to tell this story of local courage and community resistance.

We too seldom see Hollywood films that depict working lives with dignity and honesty, so I was hopeful about this one. And the film does deliver a dramatic account of the 69-day ordeal suffered by Los 33. But is it too Hollywood and not enough Chilean?

Mexican-born director Patricia Riggen (Under the Same Moon, 2007, and Disney’s TV movie Lemonade Mouth, 2011) explores the miners’ personal lives, both with their families above ground and their intensified relationships with each other while trapped 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) underground.

Basing their script on Los Angeles Times writer Hector Tobar’s 2014 book Deep Down Dark, the three screenwriters retell the story of the miner’s courageous efforts to survive until rescuers drilled through a rock “twice the size of the Empire State Building” to save them. The script reveals their psychological fissures and their strength of character as they hear the mountain rumble threateningly.

In one tense moment, the other 32 learn that their leader has been offered a book deal and he is ostracized. In another, some racial tension flares when some of the miners treat a Bolivian man with disdain. In still another, a pastor-miner convinces the town drunk to make amends for his bad behavior toward the other miners and his sister.

I wondered about some of Riggen’s casting choices. Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda, the self-appointed leader of the 33, made some sense. Lou Diamond Phillips (La Bamba, Stand and Deliver) as the compromised health and safety representative also made sense since he has played other Hispanic roles. But why French star Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) as the drunk’s sister and would-be community activist? Why Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, who I’ve been enjoying recently in the TV series In Treatment, as the Chilean mining engineer? Why choose Bob Gunton (Argo, Shawshank Redemption), an American, to play the Chilean president?

Deep Dark Down coverWhy not pick from what I expect is an amazingly capable stable of Chilean actors for those lead roles? The simple answer: star power. And yet The 33 tells the kind of story that begs for a certain anonymity. It was about ordinary working people struggling to survive underground while their families fought to force the Chilean government and the world to act.

To her credit, director Riggen recreates the comic relief that came with news reports at the time revealing the marital infidelity of one of the miners. As we watched the rescue story unfold on TV in 2010, assuming an almost hopeless situation, it was a much-needed tension reliever. But some of her other choices did not work as well for me.

It probably made good business sense to film in English thus promising to capture the big U.S. audiences. A film made only in Chilean Spanish with English subtitles would not likely appeal widely to North American filmgoers. But the business decision meant that Hollywood got in the way of the local story about an anonymous community rallying to save the miners.

I was also puzzled by Riggen’s injection of some magical realism as the miners reach their breaking points and enjoy imaginary visits from their loved ones in a Last Supper scene. Although I could understand this as a filmic way to depict their despair, it drew my attention away from the reality of the miner’s grave situation.

Finally, where were the unions? It’s possible that there was no union for Riggen to portray. Only 10 per cent of the Chilean workforce is unionized, after all, but surely international unions were monitoring and issuing warnings about the horrifying safety record of the San Esteban Mining Company. Surely even the small Chilean union movement was aware of the potential for disaster at the San Jose mine.

And where were the unions associated with the Canadian, U.S. and Australian drilling companies that came to the rescue site? Where were the United Mine Workers of America? Is it possible that unions were not included in the script because they were not there?

Perhaps the most puzzling question of all was beyond the film’s mandate: why have no charges been laid against the mining company, one that is notorious for its unsafe mine operations. Eight workers have died in its mines over the past dozen years, according to the non-profit Chilean Safety Association. Riggen’s film does depict the company’s negligence, so why haven’t the mine owners been held responsible for this multi-million-dollar travesty? And why haven’t the 33 been compensated?

Questions abound. Still, Riggen deserves kudos for tackling the subject of mining health and safety and for bringing it to the attention of world audiences even if in the slick guise of a Hollywood movie.

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