The trapped Chilean miners are a little close to Billy Wilder for comfort

We should heed Wilder's warning in Ace in the Hole, his 1951 satire about a hack who will do anything to keep his story alive

The week's most dramatic news story had, for me, a weird echo with cinema. In the northern Chilean city of Copiapó there has been wild rejoicing, combined with the sober sense of a strange ordeal ahead. Thirty-three people had been trapped inside a collapsed mine for 17 days, but at the beginning of this week rescue workers established contact with the men – who were basically safe and sound, having been trained for precisely this eventuality and strictly rationed what little food they had while drinking water from their diggers' radiators.

But there are to be no immediate scenes of the men emerging from their hell to be hugged by sobbing relatives – far from it. They must resign themselves to months of waiting underground while their rescuers, with the help of the miners themselves, clear out the debris. A borehole, initially just 8cm wide, has been drilled through rock to pass down nutrient capsules, glucose, water, medicines and even antidepressants to the men.

"What does that remind me of?" I wondered when I first heard this story. Then it hit me: Billy Wilder's 1951 satire Ace In The Hole, in which Kirk Douglas plays Charles Tatum, an unscrupulous newspaper reporter who stumbles upon the case that could make his career when he finds a man trapped in an abandoned silver mine. Tatum is effectively the first person on the scene and instantly enforces a spurious authority and urgency, bullying and schmoozing those in charge. He knows he has to spin the story out for as long as he can, so instead of a normal rescue operation – which would get the poor man out in a day or two – Tatum insists on an elaborate new plan which will take far longer and involves drilling through solid rock. Meanwhile he milks the story, manipulating the man's family for his awful "human interest" angles.

Of course, there's a difference between Wilder's brilliant satire and the Chilean case. In the newspaperman's dramatic vision, tension and suspense (and high newspaper sales) only exist so long as there is jeopardy, and he can't imagine it lasting all that long anyway. Once his man is rescued and out of danger, the story's over. It's different in the Chilean case. There has, of course, been no question of extending the trapped men's ordeal for the sake of a story, but in any case the few months ahead could turn out to be too unpleasant and anticlimactic to be exploited by any Charles Tatum figure.

Or could they? One of the things that rescuers have managed to get down through the 8cm borehole is a tiny video camera, which has transmitted stunning pictures. With the men using batteries from their vehicles for their helmet lamps, images of their faces transfigured by joy have reportedly been extraordinary.

I have an awful vision of Douglas's Tatum returning to Chile as a sinister media ghost, whispering into people's ears: how about making this the reality show of the century? Could not more tiny cameras be got down there, perhaps? With sound equipment? We could tell them news about the outside world ... news about their cheating spouses, maybe? We could watch as they interact and quarrel. A few months is the ideal time for a TV series, and if it goes well we needn't hurry to get everyone out ...

Next year will be 60th anniverary of Wilder's brilliant media satire, the appropriate occasion for a big DVD reissue; but I can't help thinking it has resonances right now.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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