Picks and Pans Review: Matewan

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

This film takes a dramatic historical event and, in the retelling, drains it of its life. As told by director-screenwriter John (The Brother from Another Planet) Sayles, Matewan turns a 1921 union battle between West Virginia coal miners and their bosses into a cross between Norma Rae and High Noon. Characteristically, Sayles populates the film with intriguing personalities, most of them portrayed by relatively unknown actors. Chris Cooper, whose face and even temper are reminiscent of cowboy star Roy Rogers, plays the low-key union organizer who slips into the town of Matewan to work with the miners. Will Oldham, 16, is a teenage miner and lay preacher, Jace Alexander an uncompromising sheriff, Josh Mostel the town's earnest mayor, Mary McDonnell a miner's widow who runs a boardinghouse, and Nancy Mette the local, sweet-hearted loose woman. (Among the few familiar faces are James Earl Jones and SCTV's Joe Grifasi, leading groups of blacks and Italian immigrants brought in as strikebreakers.) The evocative background music is supplied by such people as West Virginian Hazel Dickens and blues harmonica pioneer John Hammond. Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell (Bound for Glory) Wexler creates a series of images that are usually more memorable than the events they portray. Sayles, however, burdens the film in an odd way. Nobody is likely to think now that the mine owners were justified in bringing in machine guns and security thugs to fight the union, but the film is often polemical. Gordon Clapp—as a mine enforcer—all but bites, he is so wicked. Cooper goes around talking like a bad handbook for organizers: "There are only two sides: them that work and them that don't." By the time of the final shoot-out, all the drama has been squashed by the needlessly one-dimensional presentation. Watching straw men get mowed down is not an interesting pastime. (PG-13)

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