You could call it Latin America’s Apollo 13 moment. In October 2010, 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below Chile’s Atacama Desert for 70 days were rescued one by one in a small steel capsule. I’ll never forget being there to witness that operation, which was watched on television by more than a billion people around the world.
Like the 1970 miracle, when NASA got the crew of a crippled moon mission safely back to earth, this was Chile’s and Latin America’s finest hour, a spiritually and technologically heroic feat that seemed to remind the continent of its potential in the 21st century.
As Chilean President Sebastián Piñera -- who’d insisted on the rescue effort when everyone else had given the miners up for dead -- told me a couple months later, “As a society, we had to play for life.”
It was inevitable that Hollywood would want to put that drama on the big screen. Last week at the Cannes Film Festival in France, legendary movie producer and studio head Mike Medavoy, whose critical and commercial hits range from 1979’s Apocalypse Now to 2010’s Black Swan, confirmed that The 33 will begin production in the fall, starring Spanish heavyweight Antonio Banderas.
What made the news more fitting was that the Chinese-born Medavoy, 72, actually grew up in Chile before coming to the U.S. as a young man.
“The Chilean people are really special,” Medavoy told me by phone last week after returning to Los Angeles from Cannes. “They have a great sense of humor, a great sense of history, and I couldn’t find a better way to capture that than with this story.”
No one is more eager to see the story told on film than the miners themselves, who say The 33 will reveal details about their epic ordeal that the world has yet to hear about. Perhaps more important, especially if the movie is a box office hit, they stand to reap the financial rewards that have largely eluded them -- and which most of them urgently need.
When I interviewed the miners for Time Magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year issue (they were runners-up that year to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) each described sleep disorders. (We spoke to the most popular miner, “Super Mario” Sepúlveda, as he jogged around a hotel pool at 1 o’clock in the morning.) Many experienced warlike, post-traumatic symptoms, and some were dealing with even worse emotional and physical conditions.
Medavoy and his production company, Phoenix Pictures, bought the rights to the miners’ story in 2011 for an undisclosed sum. But he admits that the drama’s multi-layered complexity, involving not just the miners but their families and the army of officials and rescue workers aboveground -- “2,000 people who stuck to it until they got these guys out,” Medavoy notes -- has made it harder to get the production started.
“To tell the whole story,” he says, “not just about 33 guys buried in a hole 800 meters below, but rather from all those different points of view, really took a lot of thinking and a lot of time to put it all together.”
Even so, the project has had little trouble luring talent like Banderas, who will play the jovial, philosophical prankster Sepúlveda, and veteran actor Martin Sheen, whose role has yet to be decided.
“They too see the value of this story,” says Medavoy. “Antonio is really jazzed about doing that part,” he adds, noting that Sepúlveda last week remarked that even though Banderas is a big star, “now that he’s gonna play me he’s gonna be a bigger star.”
But besides their humor and discipline, the other quality that helped the miners survive, and one Medavoy says he hopes The 33 conveys, was a proud and profound spirituality.
“This was about faith in the end,” the miners’ leader, Luis Urzúa, told me back in 2010. Medavoy says he knows that will resonate especially loudly around Latin America -- and in cities like Miami with large Latin American populations -- where people from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego considered the rescue their triumph as well as Chile’s, a chance to transcend the natural and political disasters that so often befall the region.
“The fact that [the rescue] worked,” Medavoy acknowledges, “translates to the rest of Latin America.”
Medavoy’s Cannes announcement, in fact, comes just in time for Piñera’s visit to the White House next week.
After scoring sky-high approval ratings after the rescue, Piñera’s presidency has unfortunately been a rough one since then. But he can probably count on President Obama making mention of the 2010 rescue -- just as he hopes Medavoy’s film will be a crowning keepsake of his, and the miners’, finest hour.
The Latin America Report is made possible by Espírito Sandto Bank and Morrison Brown Argiz & Fara, LLC.