Plot: What’s it about?
A business needs workers to survive. Those workers need jobs in order to survive. The connection seems obvious, given that both parties need each other, but life is never that simple. In business, the bottom line is what drives the company, the profits are the goal, after all. But some companies choose to scale back in areas in order to increase that profit, sometimes with dire consequences. When the miners of Harlan County, Kentucky wanted a better work atmosphere and a chance at a better life at home, they were denied. The work was harsh and brutal, very dangerous and backbreaking style labor. In an effort to get what they deserved from the company, the miners went on strike and that strike lasted over a year in duration. Barbara Kopple and her crew watched as the strike unfolded, with frequent violence and constant tension. The company brought in armed thugs to bully and attack the striking workers, as well as protect the scabs hired to work in their place. As tensions continue to grow, even Kopple and crew aren’t safe from harm, as they’re attacked and would later learn an even worse fate was planned, stopped only because of the images captured on film. This is real life. Not pretty and not pleasant, but real life and Harlan County USA is a documentary masterpiece.
A lot of films have taken on the issue of workers’ rights, but none can come close to the reality of the situations, for that, you need to see real life. So Harlan County USA shows us the real life side of the coin, which has more drama, tension, and heartbreak than any fictional production. This is not a distant newcast on the events either, as director Barbara Kopple has her camera up close and inside every moment. In other words, you’re taken to the front lines of the strike, a scene few not involved in the situation were allowed to experience. This is the kind of stuff you just don’t see on the news, such as gunshots fired at the picketers, armed thugs taking on those at the line, and perhaps most brutal of all, the suffering and hardship of the workers left in the cold. This was footage that some of those involved didn’t want to have leaked, which prompted an assault on the filmmakers, so this is not your standard documentary release. This is powerful, unforgettable cinema that has lost none of its impact with time, one of the best documentaries I ever seen. Even so, the nature of the film doesn’t lend itself to repeat viewing, so perhaps a rental is still the best option.
Video: How does it look?
Harlan County USA is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. I wasn’t sure what to expect here, given the poor condition of the other versions I’ve seen. But Criterion has drummed up another winner, with restored visuals that give the material new life. I knew Criterion would deliver, but I assumed grain would remain thick in any event, though that isn’t the case. The blend of color footage and black & white comes across well, with no real complaints to be made. This is one I wasn’t sure even Criterion could dress up with great success, but this movie looks excellent in this treatment.
Audio: How does it sound?
This is a documentary and unlike the slick, well funded ones we’re used to these days, this was a low rent, on the fly style shoot. That means the soundtrack is raw and has that “live as it happens” feel, which is because, well it was live as it happened. So some of the audio is lower than ideal levels or hard to hear, but such is the price you pay for this kind of picture. For what it is, the soundtrack is more than solid, with a lot fewer woes than you might think. And if you do have more trouble than I did with the soundtrack, you can always flip on the included English subtitles for assistance.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Kopple is joined by editor Nancy Baker in an audio commentary track, which has a lot of details about the shoot and circumstances around it. I found this to be quite cool, as the production is a story unto itself, so it was nice to hear some stories, both good and bad. Even more information is found in the featurette on the shoot, chock full of interviews with crew members and surviving strike members. This disc also includes some rare outtakes, two additional interviews, and the film’s theatrical trailer.