(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival) 

51st Chicago International Film Festival Highlight special presentation

"THE 33"-- 4 STARS

There is a central scene that encapsulates all of the spirit, sensibility, and hopeful inspiration presented by "The 33."  Based on the true story that already sounded like it was born from a movie, the thirty-three trapped Chilean miners sit down together for what stands to be their final meal, a last supper, if you will.  They've been underground 2,300 feet in 90+ degree temperatures for about two weeks and have rationed their three-day food supply to this final can of tuna divided among them.  A dark reality perforates any heartfelt optimism that kept these men going until this point.

As they sit there hungry and weak, a shared daydream opens up and the room brightens in fantasy.  Several of them begin picturing their favorite dishes sitting in front of them instead of the spoonful of old fish.  The plates arrive with love served by the visions of their respective wives, lovers, and children.  The imagination is contagious and an entire dinner party opens up between these men sharing hearty food, conversation, memories, laughs, and frivolity.

The daydream fades, but this scene in "The 33" cannot help but put a smile on your face and a tear in your eye.  It is a golden moment, made through cinematic artistry, where the men push back their grim future and take stock in the good lives they have lead.  This off-beat sequence takes you away from the countdown moments of planning, survival, rescue, and urgency that drive the timeline narrative of the real events unfolding in the film.  Larger moments of happiness and victory will follow, but the scene is a brilliant turning point that epitomizes this story being about what essentially all good stories are about: people.

The 2010 Copiapo mining accident captured the hearts and attention people from around the world.  The televised rescue of the thirty-three men was seen by over a billion people.  The international rescue effort and public support to expedite their rescue was enormous.  "The 33," from director Patricia Riggen "Under the Same Moon") was made in full partnership and participation from those famed survivors, all of which were never compensated for their injuries, lost time, or damages during their 69-day ordeal.  

On Thursday, August 5, 2010, geological instability and poor safety preparations led to a collapse of a 121-year-old copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert of Chile.  Thirty-three men survived the initial collapse and were trapped in the refuge station 200+ stories down.  The mining company was unequipped to make any rescue attempt so the national Minister of Minery, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), takes over at the behest of the President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera (Bob Gunton).  Golborne summons the world's top mining engineer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Byrne) and American driller Jeff Hart (James Brolin) to assist.  Even with 24-hour drilling, any direct rescue effort is blocked by the metallic core of the mountain equivalent to double the size of the Empire State Building resting right above the level of the refuge station.

At that depth, communications are cut off and no ladders or chimneys reach the surface.  In the reinforced station, there is stored food to sustain thirty men for three days.  Antonio Banderas and the long-lost Lou Diamond Phillips star as two of the miners, Mario "Super Mario" Sepulveda and Luis "Don Lucho" Urzua.  Both make up two ends of a leadership role, one in spirit and the other in rank.  They are part of thirty-three men who can only wait, pray, ration, and hold out in hopes that something or anything can reach them.  Their families, embodied by Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche playing the sister of one the trapped miners, can only do the same while the response of the government rescue tests their patience and dedication.

The dark and bright moments in "The 33" are orchestrated by the late composer James Horner, in the second of this three final posthumous works.  Horner's score loves to add peril when possible, but often settles for humanely balanced poignancy.  Through his blended high strings, Spanish-flavored instrumentation, and signature wood flute notes, the film is tonally well-enveloped by Horner's work without the pounding sense of submission that would come from a different creative approach.  "The 33" carries a dedication to Horner and this is a great place to fondly remember his talent and touch.  

Written by Oscar-nominated writer and playwright Jose Rivera ("The Motorcycle Diaries") and based of Hector Tobar's novel "Deep Down Dark," the story of "The 33" was tailor-made for Hollywood.  Director Patricia Riggen gives this entire story a humanizing treatment.  As evident by that great dinner scene detailed earlier, Riggen maintains a small-scale quality that would be blown out of proportion by a larger studio or director.  This isn't Irwin Allen territory.  In the hands of someone more bombastic, the finished product would be far more cliche and erroneously over-dramatized.  Riggen certainly still employs a plentiful creative license to dramatize and compress this trauma into two hours, but the lionizing on one end and the vilifying on the other is remarkably low.

LESSON #1: THE ANGUISH OF FAMILIES IN DISASTER CIRCUMSTANCES-- Fear and uncertainty weighs on the miners and those feelings are matched by their family members waiting above for the same hope.  The hardest part of the anguish for both sides of the family was the unknown and slowly dwindling odds.  The waiting families had no word or assurance their men were even alive to be found, let alone knowing how long they could survive without help.

LESSON #2: LEADING PATIENCE AND TEAMWORK-- The concerted efforts, both above ground and below ground, for this survival story surround the virtues patience and teamwork.  In the mine, Mario becomes a trusted and natural leader who maintains food rationing and hopeful determination.  On the surface, Laurence is a bureaucrat who rises to the occasion to become a tireless advocate and supporter of the community effort that spared no expense.

LESSON #3: BROTHERS THROUGH SHARED TRAUMA AND EXPERIENCE-- This wasn't wartime combat, but these thirty-three man became brothers through traumatic shared experience.  Physically and mentally tested beyond anyone's normal limits, these men went through and came out of hell together.  The trust, appreciation, respect, and brotherhood formed by these men is unbreakable.