March 03, 2004

Matewan

Coal miners in 1920's West Virginia fight for the their dignity and the right to unionize. Matewan is the name of the town in West Virginia where all the shit hits the fan. This is a fictional story, but carries the ring of truth.

Matewan was released in 1987. My wife Lucy is from West Virginia and remembered this film as being really good. We couldn't find a DVD at the main chain video rental places, but we did manage to locate a tape at Alphaville, the arthouse geek video rental store in town. It's down in Nob Hill, and since Matewan was directed by John Sayles, they are morally obligated to maintain a copy.

From net research, it sounds like the DVD isn't much better than the tape, so it was no big deal stepping back to the older format.

Matewan is a stunningly affecting film. Sayles captured the essence of that mining town and what the miners had to deal with. I am no socialist and I believe that the unions in this day and age have acquired way too much power, and that this helps to hasten the end of our republic. However, seeing from the Matewan coal miners' perspective, I understand even better how unions got their start, and why some people will never trust businesses to do the right thing.

Chris Cooper stars as the union man sent in from New York to help the miners organize, and he does his typically stoic and intense job of playing his character. Cooper now is getting to be like Nicholson; he gets his parts and then just goes and plays himself. This film came out much earlier in his career, long before he started getting Oscar nominations every year.

The battle lines are very clear in this film, and given the actions of the mining company, and the nastiness of the goons they send in to find the agitators, you have no problem siding with the miners.

Sayles did one very interesting thing with the script. Later in the film there is an incident where some company-sponsored "peace keepers" come in to the miners camp. They start showing off their guns and talking shit to the women while the men are at work. But then, some hillbillies come up out of the woods, with guns of their own, and chase off the suited strong armers. He who appears to be the patriarch of the mountain men, in response to an assertion that "these people are breaking the law," says that, "out here there is only nature's law." A bit of extreme libertarianism in the middle of a decidedly socialist commentary. Sayles surely knew what he was doing there.

If you can find a copy, which at least regarding rentals won't be easy, do watch it as soon as you can. The cheapest I could find a copy for sale on Amazon or half.com was $15, and that for a VHS. DVD's were over $20.

Posted by Wayne at March 3, 2004 02:11 PM
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