It is a rarity these days to see a film that has a social conscience, what with Hollywood more preoccupied with more action and better special effects, so watching this movie feels a little like wallowing in nostalgia. It is a slice of movie as history lesson, written and directed by one of the last humanitarian directors still working today, John Sayles.
Taking as its starting point the labour wars that went on in America during the 1920's, the film deals with the fictional account of a group of West Virginia miners in the town of Matewan. After the Stone Mine Coal Company reduces rates of pay yet again, the miners go on strike, with the result that the company bring in hired guns both to remove the miners from company owned houses, and protect the mine from sabotage attempts. Gradually things escalate, and violence breeds violence as the genuine grievances of the miners are met head on with the intransigence of the company.
Working with a trio of his favourite actors, Sayles has crafted a film that whilst it deals with a fictionalised event, has such a compelling ring of truth to it that you may find it hard to believe that you are not watching historical fact (as indeed I did). Chris Cooper is superb as Joe Kenehan, the man brought in by the fledgling United Mine Workers union to try to help the miners organize, who must fight against the miners natural inclination to fight fire with fire whilst trying to convince them that solidarity is the only way, and Mary McDonnall gives a quiet, dignified performance as Elma Radnor, a widow who's husband has already met his death down the mine due to the company's appalling safety record, and now sees her son risking the same as he becomes a miner himself. But the two standout performances are David Strathairn as the towns sheriff, a slight figure of a man who refuses to be bullied by the companies thugs and is prepared to do whatever he must in order to protect the people under his jurisdiction, and James Earl Jones as the aptly named Few Clothes, one of a number of workers brought in by the company to work the mine who finds his true sympathies lie with the striking miners.
The film deals with Sayles preoccupation of the little man being given a rough ride by those in power, and whilst his other films have only handled this subject in a metaphorical manner (such as Eight Men Out), this deals with it in a head on, literal sense. Whilst the film literally screams worthiness from the very opening shot, it avoids sermonising on the whole (apart from a few scenes when characters do, literally deliver sermons), and manages to salute both a pacifist ideal and at the same time admit that some ideals must occasionally be defended with violence. It is also something of a slow burn, with several scenes managing to avoid the expected violence altogether, but when the violence does come it is both quick and brutal, tragic and life changing.