In Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, director John Sayles writes: "If storytelling has a positive function, it’s to put us in touch with other people’s lives to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we’ll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience." In his latest film Matewan, Sayles does just that introducing his audience to a group of exemplary individuals whose lives reveal how virtue is forged out of adversity.
When the mine owners in the small West Virginia town of Matewan decide to come down hard on their striking workers during the 1920s, everyone in the community bands together to resist. The man behind this unity is Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), a union organizer whose pacifism is his source of strength.
The violent intimidation tactics of thugs hired by the company only firms the workers’ resolve to fight against those who use people until they wear down, break down, or are as dead as doornails. Sixteen-year-old Danny (Will Oldham), a lay preacher and ardent union member, has his ideals and faith tested. His mother (Mary McDonnell) reaches inside herself for courage in a moment of terrible danger. The town’s sheriff (David Strathairn) stands tall, and the mayor of the town (Josh Mostel) refuses to sell his people down the river for money. Virtue roars like a lion in Matewan as ordinary citizens achieve heroic stature. This is an old-fashioned movie that will make the hearts of all idealists truly sing.