I both anticipate and dread historical political dramas. On the one hand, I love a well-constructed docudrama that quietly captures the charged texture of real events; on the other hand, too often the fascinating complexity of thorny issues is reduced to a simple morality tale, or drowned in cheap melodrama that is nowhere near as intriguing as the frustrating and exciting banality of life. With Matewan, the true story of a 1920 battle between unionizing coal workers and the mining company that has taken over their small West Virginia town, writer-director John Sayles fully delivers in terms of tone, but falls short of the probing storytelling that marks his best work.
Chris Cooper stars as Joe Kenehan, a United Mine Workers of America organizer sent to Matewan to enlist laborers who are treated, at best, as disposable. Replaced by scabs and booted out of their company-owned homes, the miners accept help where they can get it, at least as far as it satisfies their immediate needs, and the UMWA is the only party taking an interest in their cause. Kenehan helps recruit the scabs — mostly immigrants and African-Americans, led by James Earl Jones, who had no idea that they were stepping into a hostile situation — to unify against the Stone Mountain Coal Company, making a violent stand-off all but inevitable.
In the first of his big ensemble dramas, Sayles assembles an excellent cast that understands the power of withheld emotions, especially in capturing the necessary sense of verisimilitude that historical subjects require. Cooper and Jones are joined by Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Ken Jenkins, Bob Gunton, Nancy Mette, Gordon Clapp, and a teenage Will Oldham in flawlessly evoking the place in time and spirit of conflict over workers' rights. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler captures it all with stoic beauty. One of Sayles' best assets as both an aestheticist and a dramatist is his confidence in his material, and he rarely kills a moment, theme or feeling with too much emphasis, preferring to let tension leak slowly, like an undetectable gas. Matewan's formal solidity is supported by a narrative that is patient and engaging but unexceptional. Kenehan (a fictional character) is serious and clean-cut, and while there is suspicion about the union's motives and Kenehan's Communist sympathies — and a nice moment near the end, during which one of the company's hired guns regrets his choice of employment — there is too little ambiguity too late in Sayles' binary depiction of the heroes and the villains in his scenario. At worst, the locals are portrayed as impatient, forcing a conflict against Kenehan's pleading (and, by that token, the company's soldiers are too patient, waiting for God-knows-what to permanently put down the agitators), their only flaw not following the union's wise, big picture-savvy advice to the letter. the simplistic story works due to Sayles' restraint, and its lack of provocation or insight is balanced by plenty of room for contemplation.
Matewan was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Ben Shoemaker, who can be found on Flickchart under the username benshoemaker. He ranks it on his chart at #429 / 2284 (81%), making it his 4th favorite out of 19 Political Dramas. Matewan ranked on my Flickchart at #974 (74%), putting it at #11 out of 36 Political Dramas.