A fictionalized retelling of events that led up to a vicious 1920 battle between striking miners and union-busting private detectives from 1987, “Matewan” showed that John Sayles was more than up to the challenge of epic film-making. The wry social commentary of the earlier films is gone; we’re in mythmaking country here.
Chris Cooper (“Lone Star,” American Beauty) stars as Joe Kenehan, a union organizer who ventures into West Virginia coal mine country to try and turn a mob of hard-bitten locals into an effective union. He’s desperately needed. Miners are forced to pay rent for the use of their equipment. Whatever pay is left over they receive in the form of “scrip,” good only at the high-priced company store. Assuming they can somehow translate the scrip into currency, buying a product for a better price at another store is grounds for instant dismissal — as is joining a union. Worst of all, the desperately poor miners are frequently killed in preventable accidents because the company doesn’t care to spend money to save workers’ lives. There’s another name for this: mass murder.
Kenehan is a former Wobbly (the nickname of the left populist International Workers of the World movement) — a decent, sensible man and, we learn, a dyed-in-the-wool “red.” Convinced that violence is what the coal mine’s owners want, the organizer is committed to bringing off the strike peacefully, but a host of factors conspire against him. First, he must persuade the recently arrived Italian immigrant and African American workers — who were not informed they were going to West Virginia to work as strike-breaking “scabs” — to join the union. This proves a lot easier than overcoming the racism, xenophobia and overall mistrust of the quick-to-anger native miners.
But fighting prejudice is nothing compared to dealing with the machinations of the loathsome Baldwin Felts Detective Agency. Intent on whipping up violence in order to justify a brutal repression, the agency has sent two private detectives-cum-stormtroopers. Played with nauseating glee by Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, these guys would beat up a lost puppy, force you to cook it for breakfast, and then complain about the taste.
Joining the atheist Kenehan on the side of the angels are a weary, skeptical boardinghouse keeper (Mary McDonnell) and her earnestly heroic son (Will Oldham), who at age 15 is both a coal miner and a Baptist preacher. Virtue is also embodied by James Earl Jones in a small but central role as “Few Clothes” Johnson, the defacto leader of the African-American contingent and Sayles’ regular David Strathairn as the surprisingly honorable and courageous sheriff. As usual with Sayles, the acting is consistently top-drawer.
“Matewan” may be shot in the gauzy style of master cinematographer (and proud leftist) Haskell Wexler, but it’s still painted in bold colors. Sayles has dropped the realistic, “well-developed” characters that mark his other films in favor of archetypes of good and evil who are, nevertheless, tragically human. This is unashamedly heroic film-making in the mold of the John Ford of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “My Darling Clementine,” with perhaps a taste of Sergio Leone. Or perhaps more than a taste. Desson Howe of The Washington Post called “Matewan,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Wobbly.” I can’t be sure because the 1998 DVD release from Artisan Entertainment that I saw is “formatted to fit your screen.” (Another good reason to foment anti-corporate rebellion!)
Like most of Ford and Leone, “Matewan” isn’t quite perfect. At times, the mythmaking goes cheesy. A repeated device which has an Italian mandolin player, a hillbilly guitarist, and a black blues-harp player engaging in a defacto jam session is embarrassingly literal. Also, it might have made sense to have at least one morally conflicted character working on the side of the coal company. (Or is that just creeping running dog moderation on my part?) Regardless, just about everything else in “Matewan” works to near perfection, and there are scenes so powerful, they’re guaranteed to make Rush Limbaugh, Brit Hume, and the entire Republican National Committee cry buckets.
Sayles may always be perceived as a (damned good) writer first and a (not too shabby) director second. Nevertheless, “Matewan” marks him as not only one of the first, but also one of the most accomplished members of the American independent movement. It also begins to make the case for Sayles as one of the more important figures in recent film history, period.