'Harlan County, U.S.A.' ***** 072706
(1973) DVD Review

The Work = *****
'Harlan County, U.S.A.' would be a great film if for no other reason than that it captures a piece of American history that would otherwise be forgotten. That the film is also quite moving is only icing on the cake. 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' tells the story of miners that go on strike in 1973 with the hopes of getting a union contract by the company they work for. A sad and moody film, accompanied by a great country music score, 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' will surely not be for everyone but those that get wrapped up in it as I did will find that its images stick with them for a long time.

Watching 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' today its strongest quality is its time capsule like presentation of the coal miners on strike in Harlan County. When the miners strike, there are no women, their wives and family join the strike but the men and women largely meet separately. Everyone smokes. The living conditions for many of the people look like they could be from the late 1890’s. Everyone is armed. A strike breaker blatantly carries a 45 pistol in his pants pocket. A miner and a New York Police Officer swap stories and job details, the miner’s job sounds much worse to the cop. Much of the imagery is startling and all of it together paints a portrait of the early 70s in Harlan County.

The film shows through amazing archival footage and still that violence has happened before in the small community. In the 1930s the minors went on strike and the mining company sent in strike breakers. The situation turned into a riot and the military ended up rolling through the streets of Harlan County. The film shows as history seems poised to repeat itself.

Reviewing 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' it is not surprising to learn that it has been added to the National Registry. Whatever criticisms one has about the film don’t detract from its value. Some of the sequence are a tad disorienting and there were a few instances where the editing seemed like it was trying to make the tensions seem higher than they were. Probably the biggest stink one could make about the film is that it is very clearly biased. First time director Barbara Kopple lived with the miners so naturally she was going to have somewhat of a bias just by her very lifestyle in the community.

'Harlan County, U.S.A.' has a great bluegrass/ country soundtrack that carries the film and accentuates the struggle of the miners. The music is moving and often catchy and is a part of the unique style that the film has. It is worth seeing because it presents a place and a time that would not be seen by the public at large otherwise. It is a moving documentary that shows people struggling to get reasonable pay increases and humane living conditions.

DVD = ****

The Look
'Harlan County, U.S.A.' gets a great transfer. I am by no means an expert when it comes to DVD transfers so I am going to default to the best DVD site around Per their review:

I haven't found concrete evidence, but we will assume the film was shot in a 1.85 ratio making the 1.78 anamorphic conversion acceptable (loss of about 4%). The Criterion transfer looks excellent leaving all the rough production earmarks of its roots intact. The heavy grain gives the feel of true film although I suspect there is some digital noise as well producing that effect. All-in-all the DVD looks to give an accurate representation of its original festival showings.” The full review can be found HERE.

The Sound
The DVD has a Dolby Digital 2.0 track that is quite good. Dialogue was easy to understand and the score sounded great. The sounds of the film come through loud and clear. The DVD has English subtitles.

The Bonus
The extras are not quite as strong as they could be. For example, an interview with filmmaker John Sayles is a way too short. Another shortcoming is the lack of information on the community after the film. What happened after the film and its surrounding buzz died down? What is the community like today? There really is not much that addresses how Harlan County is doing now. Part of the problem is the film did such a fine job of drawing me in to the world of the miners that I wanted more. I guess I can’t fault Criterion too much because to adequately follow up they would more or less be making a sequel to the film.

There is some mention of current miner issues (outside of Harlan County) in the commentary track and also in a featurette made at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The features are the previously mentioned commentary track (which has Kopple and the film’s editor Nancy Baker,) the Sayles interview, the Sundance featurette (which has Kopple, Baker, cinematographer Hart Perry, musician Hazel Dickens and film critic Roger Ebert.) Also on the DVD is the 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' trailer, a selection of some great deleted scenes (especially the added bits with Nimrod Workman) and a making of featurette that has interviews with some of the filmmakers and a handful of the people who appeared 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' (it runs about 20 minutes.) There is an interview with Dickens (who did much of the wonderful music that is in the film.) Finally there are some liner notes in the DVD case.

All Together = *****
I must admit that I am biased towards documentaries. I’m the type of dork that can sit glued to the history channel for hours. 'Harlan County, U.S.A.' is a great film that is easy to recommend. It has its faults which will bother some more than others but the imagery of the movie more than make for it. Highly recommended.


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