Review – What’s that Lassie? How many trapped in a well? (“The 33”)

By the numbers: In 2010, 33 Chilean men working in a 100-year-old mine, enduring 96 degrees heat, were trapped for 69 days, 200 stories deep in the Earth by a rock roughly twice the girth of the Empire St. Building. And you thought YOU were having a bad day?!

Playing out like an 80’s ABC-TV movie-of-the-week, this melodramatic multi-tale film deals with the stories of the miners, families, government officials, and media fallout of the real-life saga that unfolded in Chile. Starting out with the very clichéd moment where the mining foremen, Luis “Don Lucho” Urzúa (Lou Diamond Phillips), tells his uncaring greedy boss that the mine is unsafe, and his boss tells him his quota is raised and that he’d better get back to work, you know things are about to go south.

Hours later, disaster strikes and a ginormous boulder seals 33 men in the bowels of the Earth, seemingly forever. Enter Lawrence Golburne (Rodrigo Santoro), Chile’s Minister of Minery and right hand man to the Chilean Prez (Bob Gunton). With the families crying out and causing a near riot for answers, Lawrence gets André Sougarret (Gabriel Bryne), a master driller and engineer to take over and try to drill a shaft down to the guys… if they’re even alive.

Meanwhile the 33, ensconced in a cave, are having to ration their food (they only have enough for 3 days) and water and try and hold on to what little hope there is for any rescue attempts. Their unofficial leader who seems to hold them together is “Super” Mario Sepulveda (Antonio Banderas), a stalwart miner who always keeps the men’s dreams alive. This comes in handy when the food runs out after 17 days and the men are near death, but thankfully the drilling pays off and a hole finds its way to them. Hooray! Now they can get fresh water and food and a video source for communication, but the tricky part is drilling a hole big enough to get a human out!

Here come the Americans and Canadians with their super mega-drills! After some problems and set-backs, a larger hole is dug and all the men are brought up through a cage one at a time, in a live televised broadcast that was seen everywhere. Great news, huh? Bad news is, none of the 33 were ever compensated afterwards for their ordeal!

Screenplay by Mikko Alanne, Michael Thomas, and Craig Borden, this lengthy docu-story jumps back and forth from the 33 underground to the topside antics of the families and construction team. There’s the requisite good guys/bad guys drawn out early with some weird comedic stuff thrown in for, I dunno, hilarity? Clearly these writers have watched way too many documentaries and dramas and not enough comedies.

Director Patricia Riggen, a newbie Latino director, serves this movie up almost like a weekly TV series. You have your basic characters to root for: the leader of the 33, the old man who is this close to retirement, the new dad-to-be, the comical gigolo, the sincere government man, the young Bolivian kid, the wayward drunk, and the righteous female leader of the families. Her direction is clean, giving us the tension to be sure, but the hopscotching from story to story gets a little tiresome. Thankfully, for a first-time feature film director, she takes chances with her use of light and camera angles.

Besides the excellent SPFX, the best acting here, holding the picture together, are Banderas and Phillips. These two should have given a class of “Acting 101” the rest of the cast since these two have it down in spades. Just watching them reminds you how good they can be.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

33 trapped in a cave? How about just one guy? Based on some actual events in 1925 and 1949, this fictional story is about as real as you can get. Co-written, produced and directed by the great Billy Wilder, this mirror-turned-at-society picture struck a cord with audiences and made them feel sick to their stomachs. Yeah, this movie really hits home.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a fiercely ambitious, self-centered, narcissistic, down-on-his-luck reporter. After being fired from eleven newspapers for libel, adultery, heavy drinking, and other nasty stuff, his car has died and he’s broke. He talks his way into a reporting job for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a nothing little newspaper. After a year of getting clean, he learns about Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse. Sensing a golden opportunity, Tatum manipulates the rescue effort, convincing unscrupulous Sheriff Kretzler (Ray Teal) to pressure the construction contractor charged with the rescue, to hold off with the rescue, so that Tatum can get the news on the front pages of newspapers nationwide! Are you kidding me??

Ya think THAT’S bad? Lorraine (Jan Sterling), the victim’s wife, goes along with the reporter’s scheme! She is eager to leave Leo and their struggling restaurant business in the middle of nowhere. Well, thanks to the publicity that Tatum generates, she experiences a financial bonanza from the hungry tourists who come out to witness the rescue. Days go by with Tatum telling Leo (via a small hole) that help is on the way and to “just hold on”, but the truth is Tatum’s loving the attention, the book deal he just signed, and the carnival atmosphere (Games! Rides! Bands!) outside the cave where thousands are gathered. He’s even hitting on Leo’s wife and drinking again.

But the party has to end someday and after five days, the carnival turns ugly. Upon learning that Leo is dying, Tatum tries to get the contractor to open the cave quickly, but it’s too late and Leo dies. Leo’s wife, mistreated by BOTH men, stabs Tatum with a pair of scissors and leaves. Ouch! The tragic ending (on SO many levels) didn’t sit well with sensitive movie-goers and the picture was a box office disappointment, the first for Wilder. But, damn! It’s so ridiculously well made and acted, you really need to see this!

Interestingly, the title, Ace in the Hole was first called The Big Carnival, but then switched back due to the confusing title. Wilder was even sued over “verbal plagiarism” (the first of its kind) over his story and lost… apparently if you just SAY the plot of a movie to a director, and they film it later without your consent, you can sue them and win! Who knew?

Fun fact: in a case of life-intimating-art, Paramount Pictures constructed the huge set outside of Gallup, Texas and included a mock-up of an ancient cliff dwelling, collapsed cave, roadside stands, parking lots, and a giant carnival site. More than 1,000 extras and 400 cars were utilized in the crowd scenes and, after the film was completed, Paramount charged admission as a tourist attraction!