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Not Even the Media Could Completely Spoil the Sincerity of These Events

By Michael Murray | TV | October 15, 2010 |

By Michael Murray | TV | October 15, 2010 |

I came late to the story of the Chilean miners.

It wasn’t until about two weeks ago that I had a clear sense of what was transpiring, and like pretty much everybody on the planet, I was stunned, even a little awestruck. The thought of men being trapped underground for months was unbelievable, as if culled from a horror film. It was beyond the scope of normal imagination, and the few images that were released of the beleaguered miners seemed a surreal invasion of their suffering.

These glimpses were too intimate, somehow, and they threatened to marginalize the men to little more than zoo-like curiosities, but the vulnerability and helplessness of the miners was an empathetic pulse nobody could resist. Instead of becoming an underground version of “Big Brother,” the miners were mercifully allowed their privacy, and the story captured the imagination of the world. In spite of the fact that there was very little to actually broadcast, the media stormed forward with its coverage, discovering that like all good horror films, the enduring power of this story was not in what has happening, but in what we imagined might happen.

Most headline news stories have a visual hook, something that captures our eye and can be easily assimilated at a glance, but this story wasn’t like that. No houses were destroyed, nobody was bleeding on the streets and no celebrities were involved. There was something old-fashioned about it. A largely abstract scenario, the miner’s plight required that we employ our imagination and sit down and think, and this had the effect of slowing down the world rather than accelerating it, as most media does. The forestalled lives of these miners were to become a part of our daily ruminations, and not just a fleeting bit of the news cycle, and as the days passed into weeks and then months, the tension kept mounting.

Even though the story needed no embellishment, the media, with an abundance of time on their hands and without any grabby images to sell, attacked the story from every imaginable angle. We got Computer Graphic Imagery, were delivered miner stats as if from the back of a baseball card, we received lessons on Chile and The President, we learned every detail of the proposed rescue mission and we watched as a portly American correspondent wiggled through a bicycle tire in order to demonstrate the circumference of the rescue capsule. It was almost all ridiculous and hyperbolic, but it didn’t matter. Men were trapped beneath the Earth, and we were going to try to get them out.

In the face of a problem with no quick fixes and ample time for consideration, a collective genius arose. I was amazed at how detailed and well-thought out the rescue mission was. It seemed that not a single detail or contingency was overlooked, and it was both touching and encouraging to see the extreme lengths that humans will go to in order to save those of their own tribe.

The rescue operation, which started on Wednesday, was unhurried and anti-climatic, just as the whole story, now spread out over 69 days, had been.

There was an antique feeling to the whole proceedings, as if we were watching something unfolding from the set of an old Western. The landscape behind the tiny hole in the ground (through which miracles were to emerge) resembled a lunar dessert. The winch that was used to pull the miners to safety was perfect in it’s simplicity. The Chilean flag (that was to obscure the proceedings from the media, but was moved aside when confidence of success surged) looked like a gift from a high school class, and the rescue capsule, also emblazoned with the Chilean colors, so that it looked like a rocket, was nothing short of charming, the sort of thing that Wes Anderson might have put in a movie. In short, everything in the rescue operation, which was brilliantly conceived and executed, looked man-made rather than constructed by high-tech robots from the future. You saw the hand of human industry at work and that was beautiful.

I watched the live feed of the rescue, which initially seemed to feature little more than a hole surrounded by a bunch of legs in orange coveralls ending boots. The footage was jerky, like it was coming from a web cam, and the sound was muddy and indecipherable. When the first miner emerged from the ground, nothing dramatic happened—angels did not descend from the heavens scattering rose petals.

Instead of getting an immediate resolution of tension when the capsule was pulled up from the earth, we had to wait— once again— as Florencio Avalos, behind an obscuring screen of mesh, was slowly and carefully unfastened. Concealed behind protective sunglasses, he stoically walked over to his family, betraying little emotion. However, his seven year-old boy was bawling, and as he hugged his father, he was the perfect stand-in for the rest of us, who unable to marshal the composure that seemed to come so easily to Avalos, sat watching at home with trembling lips and dewy eyes.

No pyrotechnics or movie star heroics defined this story, just a patient and determined commitment to the sanctity of life and love. And as each of the 33 miners rose to the surface over the next 24 hours, we were moved by the sincerity of the love, gratitude and accomplishment that radiated from everybody squeezed onto our TV screen, and were happy to have some of it wash into us, too.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.