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'Harlan County, U.S.A.' ***** 072706
The Work = *****
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 = ****
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 = *****
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