SCREENnWhy Tell ItnStraight?nby Katherine DaltonnMatewan; written and directed bynJohn Sayles; Cinecom EntertainmentnGroup.nIn 1920 Matewan was a little town onnthe western edge of Mingo County,nWest Virginia, right on the Kentuckynborder. It was a town owned and run bynthe Stone Mountain Coal Company,nand when the miners tried to bring in thenunion, the county in general and Matewannin particular exploded. On May 19,nAlbert and Lee Felts (of the notoriousnstrong-arm “detective” agency Baldwin-nFelts) and 11 other detectives arrived inntown to oust the striking miners from thencompany-owned houses they were occupying.nThe town’s lone policeman, SidnHatfield, and the mayor, C.C. Testerman,nobjected, and two days later therenwas a shoot-out in the streets that leftnfour wounded and 10 dead — includingnthe mayor and seven Baldwin-Felts men.nIt was by far the bloodiest union skirmishnthe area had seen up till then.nAfter the shoot-out, the Baldwin-FeltsnAgency sent in a man named C.E.nLively. He was to work undercover andnopen a restaurant in the United MinenWorkers’ building, to pick up what hencould by way of damning evidencenagainst the miners. Lively had no luck,nand Hatfield and those miners who hadnbeen put on trial for the murder of thenFelts brothers were all judged to havenacted in self-defense. Lively later killednHatfield in broad daylight on the Mc­nDowell County Courthouse steps—andnwas himself acquitted, even thoughnHatfield was said to have been withoutna gun.nThose seem to be the basic facts ofnwhat happened at Matewan. JohnnSayles, who both wrote and directed thenmovie Matewan, had what seems a verynVITAL SIGNSninteresting record to start with —nclear-cut bad guys (the Baldwin-Felts),ninternecine quarrels between the strikingnminers and the imported scabs whonneeded the work just as badly, all in thenmiddle of Hatfield-McCoy country (SidnHatfield’s name is not a coincidence).nThe unionization versus vested interestsnstory is not so old that it isn’t worthnretelling, and these days it’s a bit of anrelief to see a movie based on some bit ofnhistory. It is simply too bad that JohnnSayles’s Matewan has so little to do withnthe real one.nIt was, apparently, not enough fornSayles that the detectives actually harassednpeople, threatened them, andnthrew them out of their homes into thenmuddy streets, at dawn and in the rain.nOr provoked a shoot-out. In the movienthe Baldwin-Felts men catch one of thenminer boys stealing coal, and after torturingnhim, they murder him by slitting hisnthroat. Surely, if such an atrocity hadnreally happened, it would have beennmentioned somewhere in the write-upsnof the Matewan battle. Surely that wouldnbe a classic labor history horror story ofncapitalists gone crazy. But just as surely,nSayles made it up.nSayles plays fast and loose with whatnreally happened in other, less importantnways. He delays the big shoot-out bynseveral months and brings in the molenLively right at the beginning, so that innthe movie he is partly the architect of thenshoot-out, rather than someone broughtnin as a response. Sayles also exaggeratesnthe union’s weakness by having as hisnmain character a lone, undercover unionnorganizer, Joe Kenehan (played by ChrisnCooper), as if the union did not have anlarge building in town (where Lively hadnhis restaurant).nThere’s nothing wrong with makingnup a mostly fictional, highly dramaticnstory around the coal wars. But to takenreal events and real men, and then twistnthem to have the nice bloody effect of anslashed boy and his frantic mother,nseems somehow dishonest. Sayles stucknto the truth only as far as he deemed itnconvenient, which in the end just appearsnlazy. Aside from the (very cinemat­nnnic) pre-shoot-out drama, the real significancenof the Matewan shoot-out actuallynseems to have been the trial itself, whichnwas covered nationally and gave thenunion some very good PR. But garrotednchildren make better movies than a boringnold courtroom.nIf the docudramatization is Matewanns biggest problem, there are other,nsmaller problems with detail. A goodndialect coach, able to train actors to speaknwith even only one of the many Southernnaccents, could go to Hollywood andnmake a mint just rendering people competent.nAside from Sissy Spacek’s LorettanLynn, I have yet to hear a believablen(and consistent) Southern accent that’snanything more difficult than a Texasndrawl. The voice of Matewan s othernmain character, 16-year-old Danny Radnorn(Will Oldham), is done sloppily innan occasional, and stagy, accent, whilenthe narration voice, which is supposed tonbe that of Danny as an old man, hasnwhat sounds like a genuine, and heavy,nhills accent. The difference is vast andnnoticeable — Oldham’s voice doesn’tn’ 40^ – ^’ *”»•–n’^r..,n•i^yi^’nmatch “pappy’s” voice at all, and whonever heard of a man acquiring a backcountrynaccent as he got older?nDespite two good performances innsupporting roles by James Earl Jones andnMary McDonnell, and despite all ofnMatewan’s histrionic coal dust andnbloodiness, the movie was insubstantial.nThere was no sense of place, no feelingnof claustrophobia in the shaft scenes, nonsense of dirt and ticks about the homelessnminers in tents, no feeling of heavynair and hunger or anything that made upnthat part of West Virginia then, or now.nJust more Hollywood pablum, tastelessnand well-chewed in a middlebrow attemptnat embellishing on a bit ofnhistory—history, which, as usual, provesnto be a lot more interesting than any ofnJANUARY 19881 47n