Matewan (1987)

D: John Sayles
S: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones

Thoughtful and heartfelt drama with a rare political conscience which details a struggle by coal miners against the anti-union forces of 1920s capitalism in West Virginia. The story is fictional (inspired by real events) but the film has a ring of truth and authenticity throughout, tainted only by a sense of naivete in its wholehearted endorsement of unionism. Though it does chart dissensions between groups of locals and hired black and immigrant labourers, the motivations and moral integrity of union agitator Chris Cooper are never subject to question. The film eventually takes on the tone of an epic tragedy as he charts an inevitable path to martyrdom which seems contrived, or at least convenient. It does detail the consequences of political violence for a small community and works very hard to emphasise the social dimensions of the tale, yet there remains an aloofness which approaches smugness about its moral position. But at least it has the virtue of possessing a moral position, and this makes it worthy of attention and respect regardless of one's personal reaction to it.

Matewan is a powerful and involving film, exquisitely designed by Nora Chavooshian and photographed by Haskell Wexler. Writer-director John Sayles, as ever, has written an intricate script around multiple characters, none of whom suffers at the expense of another's narrative prominence. This gives plenty of reign to a strong cast of character actors, all of whom perform in a similar low-key register throughout. Cooper is good in the lead, ably supported by Mary McDonnell as a local boarding house keeper whose son is in training to be a preacher (in a church led by director Sayles in a small role). David Strathairn makes an impression as a wily local sheriff, as does James Earl Jones as a sombre pro-union labourer brought in to work as a scab without realising it. No single character or performer emerges as the star however, and this is essential to the film's overall goals. The result is an ensemble piece about organised labour which successfully argues for solidarity and community integrity in the face of oppression and injustice.

The pace of the film is slow, with an emphasis on creating a convincing setting for the drama which unfolds. It details a small community about to be shattered by political conflict, and takes its time to establish the status quo and lay the groundwork for the fractures about to score its peaceful face. Sayles gives relatively little time to outright exposition though, as from its opening scenes the film is careful to unfold a psychological tapestry which gives its characters depth and sets a human context for the action. It does weigh more heavily in the direction of social drama than character piece however, and it is not slow to establish the political context early on. This gives the film something of the tone of a history lesson which it cannot quite overcome, and casual audiences will have some difficulty adjusting to its subtle pleasures.

This is a rewarding film which while ever aware of its own importance is not as self-inflated as this might suggest. It takes time and care in detailing a story which is replete with political resonance, but which also attempts to create empathy through its portrayal of believable human beings in a particular circumstance. It will not appeal to all viewers, but it is worthwhile. It is most interesting though when seen in the context of mid 1980s right-wing American cinema as a virtually unique articulation of an alternative political consciousness from an independent cinematic voice. This of course might only further serve to alienate potential audiences, but for students of film and film history, it will add a dimension of appreciation which cannot have been far from the intentions of the film maker.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.