*/**** Image B Sound B Extras A
directed by Mark Bussler
THE PENNSYLVANIA MINERS' STORY
*½/**** Image B- Sound B
starring Graham Beckel, Michael Bowen, Tom Bower, Dylan Bruno
screenplay by Elwood Reid
directed by David Frankel
by Walter Chaw Richard Dreyfuss's voice is like a weasel rubbed against a blackboard: not entirely nasal (not entirely not), with a sort of lisping sneer that makes him a particularly bad match for narration work. It's not an axiom--but it should be--that lately the only thing worse than watching Dreyfuss in a film is listening to him; to the credit of peculiar direct-to-video documentary Johnstown Flood, though we have to listen to Dreyfuss narrate the piece, we don't have to watch him emote his way through it. The effect of having Dreyfuss go on about one of the most horrific dam-break tragedies in the United States is that his Napoleon-complex, constipated Snagglepuss wheeze ("Heaventh to Murgatroid!") lends the recreated bits of the documentary a tense sort of edge that it doesn't otherwise earn and feels slightly left of true, besides. Through it all, it's not Dreyfuss but the badly written and performed re-enactments that are the main problem with the piece, demonstrating by their weakness just how good The History Channel's stolid re-enactments actually are.
May 31, 1889: the South Fork Dam looming over industrial central Pennsylvanian town Johnstown breaks under the pressure of a lake swollen by days of heavy rain, crashing through towns and the unsuspecting populace, harvesting a death toll in upwards of 2,200 men, women, and children. Some drowned, some were impaled or struck by objects in the cataract, others burned to death in a fire that devoured the wreckage. Johnstown Flood takes pains to provide a wealth of information and, tragically, a commensurate deluge of schmaltz; manufacturing pathos for the worst flood disaster in American history is first unnecessary, next potentially insulting--why does tragedy of any scale need theatrical embellishment? Contemporary news clippings, photographs, and engravings taken from the Johnstown Museum are predictably haunting, but the re-enactments are just dreadful (equal parts amateurish and bug-eyed), as are new sketches produced for the film that ring cartoonish and, horror of horrors, cutesy.
An interesting topic, no doubt, the picture is much more interesting with the feature-length yakker offered by the executive director of the Johnstown Heritage Association, Richard Berkert. Berkert, although a little dry and seldom scene-specific, offers a wealth of perspective and insight into the climate around the tragedy that turned the catastrophe into an indictment of America's robber barons. The careful instruction of how class, media, and politics as they existed in 1889, play into the interpretation of the tragedy to this day brings to the piece the sort of resonance of which the soundtrack proper just isn't capable. A 20-minute bonus documentary features more of Berkert (though much of the information in the featurette is just a rehash of the commentary), and finally, Patricia Prattis Jennings performs a "piano illustration" composed about the tragedy in 1889.
For all of its myriad flaws, at the least Johnstown Flood resists calling the victims of the tragedies "heroes"--that peculiar American desire to brand folks foisted on the business end of mule's luck's petard with labels like "heroism" and "valour." It's an irritating sort of thing that the makers of TV-quickie The Pennsylvania Miners' Story fail to avoid as they slap together a low-budget bit of READER'S DIGEST "Drama in Real Life" melodrama based on interviews with the poor folks trapped in a different sort of Pennsylvania flood. (What is it with the Keystone State and floods, anyhow?) Almost forgotten about the event is its proximity just ten months removed from the terrorist attacks of 9/11--for me, the fact of these nine blue-collar Joes trapped underground and, eventually, rescued through the tireless efforts of their mining company was almost a restoration of confidence, albeit brief, in America's ability to pull victory out of defeat. What grates is the idea that these men were heroes for not dying--better to foster the idea that these men were heroes for going to an awful, back-breaking job so that their families could benefit from the sort of benefits that employers offering awful, back-breaking jobs give to trap their employees in said jobs: the modern-day version of the union store.
The place where the miners' story intersects with the fallout from Johnstown Flood, the idea that the negligence of evil captains of industry contributes to the despair and suffering of the common man, is also the point at which the two stories depart somewhat. Where the heroes of Johnstown Flood are the relief agencies and the perseverance of the survivors (but, again, what choice did they have?), the real hero of the Pennsylvania mine story is actually the mining company that refused to give their employees up for lost, with hysterical and abusive kin keening in their ear even as a massive rescue operation was underway. Prayer being obviously a central part of their lives, I was disappointed to not hear a few folks blaming The Almighty for putting them through their paces, but perhaps the justifiable recriminations come later. Prayer without consideration tends to make the flock seem a little simple and, indeed, the interchangeable miners, trapped underground when they drill into some sort of water supply, take on the high-gloss of God-fearing saint-martyrs whose only sin is not saying goodbye to their wives and kids.
Moments are affecting in a made-for-TV sort of way, the best coming in the revelation that the miners tied themselves together to make finding their corpses an easier thing, and the worst in a line in which a miner criticizes "them union boys" when, in fact, the miners themselves are protected by a strong union (the UMWA). The strange effect of films that capitalize on recent events (this film financed, produced, and broadcast within four months) is one of rehashing still-fresh memory in what feels a little like a child's desire to repeatedly experience the same tale. Without much in the way of actual surprise in the outcome, the picture spends an inordinate amount of time with each character throwing their arms up to the heavens and weeping piteously, each blubbering explosion timed with a commercial break.
The Pennsylvania Miners' Story is feel-good claptrap about an event that was curiously important for its time--one can't help but feel, though, that it squandered its opportunity for real relevance by failing to address the Bush administration's dogged dedication to cut budget and staffing at the Mine Safety and Health Administration even as Bush grabbed photo opportunities at the site--the sort of dimwitted dishonesty and domestic bumbling that may ultimately be the legacy of this period of our troubled history. That actual footage of the miners as they're brought to the surface still has the power to affect (in much the same way as footage of the World Trade Center aflame) speaks to both the rationale for doing this film, and the rationale for not similarly rushing a movie of the week about 9/11. Tweaking emotions is a fragile pastime, and there's a thin line between "tribute" and "mawkish." TV image and sound (despite its Dolby 5.1 status), and no special features, reflect the shake-and-bake ethic of the whole shooting match. Originally published: August 7, 2003.