You can probably think of several more enticing ways to spend a Sunday evening than being trapped underground in a mine. There is, indeed, very little that's inviting or rewarding about "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story," a quickie docudrama from ABC airing tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 7.
Based on a real-life crisis from last July, when nine coal miners were trapped in a flooding underground cavern in Somerset County, Pa., the film tells the tale in a straightforward, no-nonsense way but never makes it as compelling as it ought to be.
It's also hard to get emotionally involved with the miners, despite their strife and bravery, because they're not all that distinguishable from one another, especially with all their faces blackened by soot as they huddle in soggy near-darkness 240 feet below the earth's surface.
Americans were "captivated," ABC publicity notes, as they followed the story of the men, who were trapped when water burst into the mine where they were working. It took rescuers three days to reach them and bring them up, all the while pumping out water to keep them from drowning.
But the movie, with its various fabrications and manufactured friction, doesn't make the story any more captivating than it already was on the evening news. In fact, it reduces it all to rescue-movie routine: We cut back and forth between the miners struggling gamely below and their frightened families fretting and freaking out above.
John Ratzenberger, for years silly Cliff on "Cheers," is the only particularly recognizable face. Instead of coming to life as believable individuals, the miners seem as anonymous as they did in newspaper accounts of the time. They are all to varying degrees stalwart and plucky and, with only a few lapses, hopeful. Good for them, but it makes for low rather than high drama.
And since we know a happy ending is a fait accompli, there isn't much tension in watching them wait, and wait, and wait as the water gurgles and surges and burbles.
In structure, the movie resembles "The Perfect Storm," a theatrical feature about men and women trapped at sea during a squall of biblical proportions. The filmmakers are pretty much limited to showing us the terrible conditions under which the victims suffer and the anguish of those who wait for their return. It sounds insensitive, given the trauma the miners underwent, but as a film it becomes monotonous.
If there was gross negligence on the part of the company that owned the mine, we don't hear diddly squat about it. One family member complains about an inadequate number of pumps on hand for such an emergency, but that's about all that's said regarding preparedness or culpability.
Almost everybody in "Miners' Story" behaves in an exemplary way, except perhaps for one of the miners' wives, who comes unglued fairly early in the proceedings and refuses to be put back together again. Unsatisfied with the assurances of a supervisor, she shrieks, "I want you to tell me what you're going to do to get our husbands out of there!"
At about the eight-hour mark, the woman goes bonkers again, visiting the site of the rescue operation and announcing, redundantly enough, "My husband's down there!" Well, yes, that's been made rather clear. She demands his locker be cleaned out so that, if saved, he can never go back to mining.
Writer Elwood Reid and director David Frankel have come up with one remarkable sequence: They shoot the miners in silhouette as they talk about mortality and spiritual matters and the kinds of things that people in such stressful, perilous situations would naturally tend to be mulling over.
Maybe the real miners weren't quite as poetic as, for example, the movie miner who visualizes a perfect night: "The sky's full of stars . . . the moon is just glowin'." But nobody really expects unvarnished realism in a story like this. If one of the men went loco and bawled like a baby for all 77 hours, we don't want to see it.
And much of the dialogue does ring true, from the miner who says simply, "I need a beer," to a fellow worker who movingly leads the men in reciting the Lord's Prayer. To cheer up the group, one man makes Donner Party jokes and another asks rhetorically and facetiously -- "Hey, you guys wanna have sex before we die?" The script was supposedly based on interviews with the miners and their families.
Equipment used in the actual rescue is seen in the film, for whatever that's worth. In conjunction with the movie, Hyperion, a corporate relative of ABC's, has just published "Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith," a book about the ordeal. It's all really just what you'd expect in the aftermath of a news story like this one -- multimedia exploitation and formulaic dramaturgy.
That's the problem.