John Sayles’ Matewan (1987)—the fact-based story of the “Matewan Massacre” in Matewan, W. Va., in 1920—is an angry film. More, it’s a righteously angry film about the oppression of coal miners by the mining companies, which led to the shootout between striking miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency operatives. Much of the film’s strength lies in that anger, but so does some of its weakness—like the tendency toward preachiness and its romanticized view of things. But it’s anger that drives the movie, and it’s anger that makes it a compelling work.
In many ways, Sayles’ movie is purest left-leaning propaganda, but that’s its intent. It’s meant to be inflammatory, even if the specific event was 67 years old at the time. It’s part of a movement in film that was more and more reacting to Reagan’s retro-vision of America—a slap in the face of the fantasy of the “good old days.” There are certainly subtler films in this realm, and there are more satirical ones and more bitter ones, but I’m not sure there’s an angrier one.
Sayles is dealing from a stacked deck with his lyrical Haskell Wexler-lensed vistas of scenic splendor, his often too noble locals and good guys, and his very, very bad guys. But his deck isn’t exactly crooked. The miners were being exploited shamelessly by the bosses. They were being deliberately kept poor—making them little more than indentured servants—by people with the bogus “scrip” money and their “company stores.” The working conditions were unsafe and the owners were a law unto themselves. And the bosses did use religion and the demonization of unions as “Bolshevik” organizations to keep the workers in line. Sayles can’t be accused of making any of this up. He simply skews his presentation.
The results are a powerful film—and it’s powerful filmmaking. Even within its own aims, however, it’s not a perfectly realized film. Its setup is slower than it needs to be and it could definitely have been shorter than it is. That said, when it’s at its best, it’s very fine—and the climactic shoot-out is exceptional. It’s even exceptional when it incorporates a couple of almost certainly highly fictionalized and very Hollywood moments into the mix.