Based on the real-life event in 2010, “The 33” is the kind of movie that people will stay away from in droves. Because they won't think it's exciting to sit for two hours and watch miners trapped in a cave. And they'd be right. It's not as blood-pumping, as say, “Spectre,” the newest James Bond movie. It's not funny. It's not a romance. It's not charming for the whole family. But it is gritty and compelling, and in its own unpredictable way, heart-warming.
In this Chilean mining town, the men go to work in the morning the same as they do every day. The bus picks them up. Most of them have been working in the mines all their lives, and for some, their fathers before them. Sure, it's dangerous and dirty and back-breaking. But alternate jobs are scarce, and don't pay nearly as well. And so, Hi-Ho-Hi-Ho, off to work they go.
What started out as any other day quickly became every man's worst nightmare. Despite warnings that the mountain was “becoming unstable,” the men were sent down, anyway, to the lowest level of the mine, some 2700 feet below the surface. They weren't there long before the deep rumblings began, and then the unthinkable: a rock landslide that threatened to bury them all in a pile of rubble.
The good news was that they managed to escape to the only safe place available, a “refuge” room hewn from the rock, where there was supposed to be a radio, some medicine, food and water. The bad news? There was no radio. No medicine, either. And very little food and water. Now they're trapped without being able to make contact with the surface. The mining company doesn't even know if they survived. And they have no way of communicating with the outside.
Predictably, some of the men begin to panic, and others quickly fight each other over the limited provisions available. But the first miracle is that they had a leader, Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas), who somehow managed to keep the troublemakers in check, and convince the whole group to act as a group. They gave him the key to the supply box, and Mario carefully portioned out the meager rations each day. And wondrously, everyone accepted his authority. And they all awaited the rescue that they were sure was on its way.
Except it wasn't. The mining company really had no plans in place. So they closed the fence to outsiders, stationed a guard at the gate, and did nothing. Figuring that any miners trapped down there were goners, anyway. Sounds cynical, but it was just business. Who could spend the millions of dollars trying to arrange a rescue that would undoubtedly be too late, anyway?
Then the second miracle: the Chilean government intervened, and sent people to mount a rescue operation. It wasn't easy. They needed the cooperation of international specialists, in engineering, and in drilling. And everybody wondered if it was even feasible that anybody survived. But then they heard a tapping on the drill bit of their probe pipe, and they knew there were miners down there. And when the media caught wind of this, suddenly the whole world was watching. And the miners' families encamped outside the fence, awaiting any word of discovery.
Meanwhile, back in the mine shaft, they quickly discovered that the escape ladders that were supposed to be in place weren't. They struggled with hunger and thirst, of course, but also despair. Until at last, a drill probe broke through and they were able to send a message back, and then, at least, communication was established, and some liquid nutrition could be sent. But arranging to actually bring the miners out was another operation entirely, and nothing was guaranteed there, either.
Yes, it's a human-interest rescue story that would have been unbelievable, except that it really happened. And the 33? They're still alive today, and each gets introduced at the credits. What an extraordinary tale. And what a joyous ending to an abysmal adventure.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas