Picks and Pans Review: Harlan County War
Show of the week
"They'd rather kill you than do it right," says a union organizer (Stellan Skarsgard) talking to aggrieved coal miners about the company's safety record. "I'm sick to death of being pushed around," says a striker's wife (Holly Hunter), urging the miners' women to take up picket duty after a biased judge restricts protests by union members. The characters in this drama put their case in stark terms without a lot of fancy rhetoric. That's one reason Harlan County War hits home.
Inspired by the Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A., Barbara Kopple's 1976 documentary about a yearlong coal strike in eastern Kentucky, this fictionalized drama seems like a retread at times—sort of a Norma Rae Meets the Molly Maguires. Kopple's classic is vastly superior in providing context for the fierce standoff. But thanks to Peter Silverman's lean script, Tony Bill's restrained direction and Hunter's strong performance, the new Harlan stands firm on its own. Using a thick regional accent, Hunter portrays a true diamond in the rough, a woman who initially rejects union activism as futile but winds up summoning the courage, ingenuity and persuasiveness to keep labor in the fight when the bosses look invincible. Ted Levine (Wonderland) is also fine as Hunter's husband, a dependable bread-winner and union man who feels threatened by her emerging leadership qualities.
Bottom Line: Good, honest labor
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