Movie Review: Matewan

Dennis suggests Matewan (in Feature Drama).  First, to get any anxiety out of the way, it’s pronounced MATE-wan, and is the name of a West Virginia town that was the setting for a violent 20’s labor struggle between coal miners and coal companies (and their hired goons).  John Sayles’ film is a recreation of the social forces, individuals, and events that led to what became known as the “Matewan massacre”; it may also be the best American film since The Godfather.  Yeah, I said it.  Sayles masterpiece deftly blends together his customary political, humanist themes with a compelling narrative, spot-on period photography, and an ensemble cast giving understated, impeccable performances to create as rich and evocative a portrait of America, of any time period, as has ever been committed to the screen.  Like most great directors, Sayles finds and utilizes actors that best compliment his artistic vision, and Chris Cooper (Adaptation, Breach, American Beauty, Seabiscuit) and David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck, L.A. Confidential), before Hollywood discovered how much it needed them, stood out as part of Sayles’ stock company.  Cooper, playing the courageous, idealistic, and pacifistic union organizer who comes to town, is the soul of decency and restraint, while Strathairn, as the local sheriff who takes the miners’ side against the exploiting owners’ mercenary guns while lamenting that Matewan “used to be a quiet town”, wears his gun with weary but undeniable honor.  Add in “Battlestar Galactica”’s Mary McDonnell as a beleaguered mine widow who takes in the quiet stranger Cooper as a border, cult musician and actor Will Oldham, aka Bonny Prince Billy (Old Joy) as a mischievous child preacher, Joe Grifasi as the leader of the Italian immigrants unwittingly imported as scabs, and, best of all, James Earl Jones as “Few Clothes”, veteran miner and dedicated union man who stands up to a roomful of whites unwilling to let him join their union in a scene that makes me want to stand up and applaud every time I see it.  Sayles knows the history of America is filled with untold stories and unsung heroes, uncelebrated because the corporations and forces they fought against have, in what has become the “American way” written them out; Sayles’ truly American classic Matewan edits a few of them back in.

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Published in: on June 29, 2009 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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