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TV Preview: 'Miners' Story' goes deep to be straight

Thursday, November 21, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Despite how hurriedly it came together, despite the typical disaster movie trappings, ABC's dramatization of the rescue of the nine trapped Quecreek miners is a highly watchable, emotionally moving, well-paced telefilm.

"The Pennsylvania Miners Story" relives the ordeal of the nine miners trapped in Quecreek Mine, Somerset County, last summer. It stars, from left, John Ratzenberger as Tom "Tuck" Foy, Robert Knepper as Mark "Moe" Popernack, Graham Beckel as Randy Fogle, Brad Greenquist as Ronald "Hound Dog" Hileman, Dylan Bruno as Blaine Mayhugh, William Mapother as John "Flathead" Phillippi, John David Souther as Dennis "Harpo" Hall, Michael Bowen as Robert "Boogie" Pugh and Tom Bower as John Unger. (Bob Doamico/ABC)

Songwriters set miners' tale to music

'The Pennsylvania
Miners' Story'

dot.gif WHEN: 9 p.m. Sunday on ABC.

dot.gif STARRING: William Mapother, John David Souther, John Ratzenberger.

All Nine Alive!
Check out the special Pittsburgh Post-Gazette section tracing the story of the Quecreek Mine disaster from the first signs of trouble to the miners' eventual rescue.

"The Pennsylvania Miners' Story" (9 p.m. Sunday, ABC) suffers from the problems inherent in telling the story of any large group. Figuring out which miner is which is mostly a losing proposition, especially once they're underground. But several come to the fore, particularly Blaine Mayhugh (Dylan Bruno), Dennis Hall (John David Souther), Randy Fogle (Graham Beckel) and Moe Popernack (Robert Knepper).

Writer Elwood Reid tries to give each miner and his wife/girlfriend their due at the outset, but the rush of hurried scenes introducing them blurs together and names of the characters aren't said often enough.

To most viewers, that won't matter, but to locals who have seen the miners on TV so often, it might be frustrating.

Still, Reid manages to invest at least some of the miners with distinct personalities, particularly Mayhugh, whose gallows humor cuts the tension. Late in their ordeal, the miners joke about resorting to cannibalism.

"Randy, I'm figuring since you're the fattest, we'll probably eat you first," Mayhugh tells Fogle.

The actors cast as the miners are uniformly good at expressing both the miners' good ol' boy sensibilities and their "I don't want to die" moments of drama.

If some of the miners come into clearer focus, the families remain fuzzy. Only a few of the wives -- notably Leslie Mayhugh (Marisa Ryan) and Missy Phillippi (Finn Carter) -- get much screen time. They're mostly shown exhibiting emotional reactions to news about their husbands.

Though rescue workers are featured in the film, they're mostly anonymous; this is the miners' story almost exclusively.

Like its too-straightforward title, "The Pennsylvania Miners' Story" is matter of fact about everything, from the flood to the rescue. Sometimes the seams show as pieces of the story are put together almost mechanically (this happened, then that happened, then the other thing happened). But director David Frankel ("Band of Brothers") allows for moments of genuine artistry, including an underground scene shot in silhouette.

There's not much foreboding at the outset of this disaster flick, save for a comic scene as the crew enters the mine and John Unger (Tom Bower) talks about an investment scheme involving Canadian cows that he hopes will get him out of mining.

"I'm just tired of working in this mine is all," he says. "If you guys think I'm here for the company and stimulating conversation, you're wrong. ... I love ya, but that doesn't mean I wanna work with you."

The film moves at a quick clip, which is fine, but it doesn't give much sense of the time the men spent trapped underground. Keeping track of the day and time through on-screen titles, which were not on the advance copy of the movie sent to critics, would help illuminate the behavior of the miners and family member in several scenes.

"Miners' Story" provides the most extensive look at coal mining in a piece of filmed entertainment in at least a decade. The film's attention to detail is especially rewarding for viewers in Western Pennsylvania.

A loaf of Giant Eagle bread is prominent in one kitchen scene. A sign outside a store advertises "Maps to Flt. 93 crash site." Somerset's Summit Diner stands in as the workplace of Denise Foy (Peggy Roeder). And, of course, the opportunity to see many local actors -- too numerous to list here -- will appeal to family and friends.

WTAE anchor/reporter Wendy Bell plays a TV reporter in the film, complete with Channel 4 mike flag. She's less animated here than in the station's actual coverage.

Gov. Mark Schweiker (Robin Thomas) gets a single scene with the families. He's portrayed as a well-meaning, but glad-handing politician who gets a verbal spanking.

"We're all family here," he says.

"That's not your son down in the hole," replies Blaine Mayhugh's angry father (Bob Elkins).

Even though the outcome of "Miners' Story" is known going in, it should grab and keep viewers' interest through a well-mixed combination of drama, chilling moments and heartwarming relief.

ABC timed it right, serving up this positive true-life story just before the holidays. A more appropriate tale of thanksgiving is difficult to imagine.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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