Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary “Harlan County USA” directly inspired this Showtime film depicting a Kentucky coal-miner’s wife who gets involved in a strike that turns violent. Fine performances from the leads and some gracefully understated storytelling from director Tony Bill make this a quality telepic, but it still never comes close to its source material in terms of insight, imagery or sheer dramatic power.
Kopple recently took Showtime to task for not making a more significant change to the title, and her point is a fair one, given that the screenplay from Peter Silverman creates purely fictional protagonists even while placing them in the context of true events. In “Harlan County War,” Holly Hunter plays Ruby Kincaid, whose husband Silas (Ted Levine) is so fed up with the dangerous conditions of the mines that he is helping to organize a union.
Stellan Skarsgard plays Warren Jakopovich, a representative of the United Mine Workers who convinces the miners to strike, and also demonstrates to the skeptical Ruby that the union is actually on the side of working families.
Ruby gradually becomes more involved in the strike, especially when some skirmishes at the picket line lead to a court order that severely limits the activities of union members.
Recognizing that the strike is worthless without a sizable picketing presence, Ruby gets the miners’ wives to man the front lines, since officially they don’t belong to the union and therefore aren’t covered in the injunction.
When she and her kids are arrested for lying down in the streets to block scab workers from reaching the mines, Ruby lets Jakopovich use the scene at the jailhouse to draw media attention, which angers Silas.
Kopple’s Oscar-winning film stood out for its focus on the role women played in the Brookside strike, and the telepic asks some interesting questions about how the involvement of the wives may have affected their marriages.
The strongest scenes in “Harlan County War” involve Silas, who’s proud of his wife at first, but feels more and more emasculated as time goes on. Levine gives an extremely compassionate, well-rounded performance.
Hunter is excellent as well, capturing the deeply felt pain that spurs the resilient Ruby to action, especially in scenes where she nurses her father Tug (Wayne Robson), who suffers from black lung disease.
Downplaying the sentimentality, Hunter communicates enormous inner strength, and carries the pic through some unsubtle scenes. She and Skarsgard have a nice chemistry, and Silverman and Bill smartly leave a lot unsaid between them.
But the strength of the performances can’t fully compensate for structural flaws and squandered dramatic opportunities. By turning Ruby into the undisputed leader of the efforts, the film transforms a community struggle into one of individual achievement.
There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the personal side of a political story, but here the elements concerning family and friendship seem smoothed over and stripped of drama.
The women in “Harlan County USA” were ready to tear each other to pieces at times as the tension built, but none of the women here ever challenge Ruby. Even more oddly, Ruby has a brother Floyd (Tom Barnett) who becomes a scab, but Ruby and Floyd don’t even have a scene together.
Ultimately, there’s a vague feeling hanging over “Harlan County War,” which builds up to a violent climax without ever feeling suspenseful. Pic is a thoroughly respectable effort, and tech credits are very strong, but unlike Kopple’s docu, this version never catches the intensity of the larger story it’s telling, and even the fictionalized personal narrative feels like it’s holding something back.