MATEWAN (1987)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: John Sayles
Cast: Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, James Earl Jones
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94%

PLOT: The (mostly) true story of a West Virginia coal town where the local miners’ struggle to form a union rose to the pitch of all-out war in 1920.

A few nights ago, I watched Matewan for the first time.  I haven’t seen many of director John Sayles’ films, but I’d venture to say it’s one of his best.  With loving authenticity and a keen ear for dialogue and music, Matewan depicts a nearly forgotten chapter of American history when coal miners in 1920 West Virginia attempted to unionize, the big corporation that owned the mine attempted to suppress and intimidate the workers, and everything came to a head one fateful day on the train tracks leading in and out of town.

I can’t pin down exactly why, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this movie.  When I was watching it, I tried to stop so I could go to bed and finish it in the morning.  But when I tried to sleep, my mind wouldn’t stop racing, thinking about the film, its message, its look, the SOUND of it.  I had to get back out of bed and finish it to the end before I was finally able to sleep.

The plot is nothing new, at least in broad strokes.  Small town locals take on corporate America and show them what for.  Seen it once, seen it a hundred times.  But for some reason, when this film showed scenes of company men evicting miners from their homes, or humiliating dinner guests at the boarding house where they’re staying, or spreading lies about union organizers, even employing a spy…I got mad.  I wasn’t just upset at the bad guys in a knee-jerk way, like disliking Nazis in a World War II film.  I was genuinely angry.  And I stayed angry for days whenever I thought about the movie.

Maybe it’s the thought of this particular kind of injustice depicted in Matewan that fueled my anger.  Here are people, poor people, desperate people, who lost their land, their homes, their dignity, and their lives so other men hundreds or thousands of miles away could report a six percent increase in profits at the next stockholder’s meeting.

There’s a powerful but terrible scene when the mining boss is introducing a group of new employees to the mine and its rules.  They are presented with tools…but they’re loans from the company, and their cost will be deducted from their first paycheck.  Miners can sharpen the tools with the company’s tool sharpeners…for a monthly fee.  The company provides a doctor…for a monthly fee.  The train ride to the mine was provided by the company…cost to be deducted.  The men are paid in company “script”, redeemable only at the company store.  Purchase any items available at the company store from an outside merchant…and you’re fired.

I remember thinking, this is literally slave labor.  How could anyone live like that, day after day, going down into a hole in the earth where the very real possibility of death, sudden or protracted, loomed over you every moment you’re down there?  And then to hear that the company could make conditions safer, but it’s just too expensive?  No WONDER they wanted to unionize.

Anyway.  Like I said.  It stuck with me.

Leaving aside the story, the film is extremely well made, especially considering the filmmakers were working within an extremely limited budget.  They employed the services of Haskell Wexler, one of the gods of movie cinematography, whose credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).  He employed a lot of low-light and natural-light photography, and as a result, even though Matewan was released in 1987, the movie looks and feels like a classic ‘70s movie.  It’s so precisely of a particular time and place that it’s a little jarring to see contemporary actors like Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell in scenes that look like something out of Barry Lyndon or McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

The music choices are also out of this world, especially in a scene where musicians from three separate ethnic communities start riffing on each other’s music.  It’s an eloquent symbol of the kind of community and camaraderie that was needed for the miners to succeed in their task.

The story moves onward.  The miners first rally around Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), who came to town with the specific goal of unionizing the mine.  Then things go sour when company enforcers arrive.  The local sheriff (David Strathairn) makes a bad first impression, but later reveals his true nature in immensely satisfying style.  Guns are fired.  Lives are lost.  A spy is discovered.  And everything leads to a final showdown between powerful men with the might of corporate America backing them up and a few desperate miners who just want to be treated like men instead of so much dry goods.

If you’re anything like me, Matewan will stay with you long after it’s over.  Maybe not for the same reasons, but its memory will definitely linger.

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