Hope survives grimness of `Matewan'. Sayles's reputation as director gets a lift from his latest movie

I hereby change my tune about John Sayles, a filmmaker I've criticized more often than I've praised. What prompts my conversion is ``Matewan,'' his very praiseworthy new picture. I'm not changing my entire tune, actually. I still think Mr. Sayles's early films, ``Return of the Secaucus Seven'' and ``Lianna,'' are badly overrated - they're schematic and self-conscious when they should be spunky and spontaneous. And the glum authenticity of ``Baby, It's You'' still strikes me as more dingy than diverting.

But his career took an abrupt turn for the better with his last movie, ``The Brother From Another Planet,'' a socially tuned-in fantasy that's at once imaginative, hilarious, and deeply compassionate.

``Matewan'' isn't as brilliant as ``Brother,'' but it has the same virtues of earthy storytelling combined with a keen sensitivity to American social values at their best and worst. It's a vivid, illuminating, and terrifically dramatic movie.

``Matewan'' (pronounced MATE-wan) is named after the West Virginia coal-mining town where it takes place in 1920. Like other such towns in that region and period, it's virtually owned by coal interests, to the point where an uncooperative miner may find himself not only jobless but homeless and foodless. To keep wages down, the owners keep packing their mines with freshly imported labor - often immigrants and Southern blacks willing to work for very low pay.

Based on actual events, ``Matewan'' begins when the Stone Mountain Coal Company brings in a new batch of Italian immigrants and then cuts the regular miners' wage. The men walk out, prompting the company to send in yet another trainload of newcomers, this time made up of poor black workers.

But also in that boxcar is a white man named Joe Kenehan, an idealist and former Wobbly who organizes laborers with a passion. He settles in a local boardinghouse and starts his clandestine campaign - slowly overcoming the workers' skepticism (although he's always a bit too radical for them) and developing a strike agreement that unites the new ``scabs'' with the old-time workers. He's the driving force behind the ``Matewan'' saga, which gathers momentum as the company and the new union grapple with each other more and more fiercely, leading to a grim climax tempered by hope for a better future.

``Matewan'' has a large cast of characters, some more convincingly fleshed out than others. Sayles has a tendency to create archtypes rather than three-dimensional human beings, and this happens again here, even with someone as important as Joe Kenehan, who's at the center of the film.

He's a forceful and appealing figure, as played by Chris Cooper, but he's so sharp, sturdy, and likable that he seems manufactured for his role - an organizer straight from Central Casting. The same happens with other characters, too. Yet good acting saves most of the picture from seeming heavy handed, even when the performances themselves are archtypal: James Earl Jones as a ragged laborer called Few Clothes, or Josh Mostel as the town's well-meaning mayor, or filmmaker Sayles (always a terrific actor) in a cameo as a union-hating preacher.

What makes ``Matewan'' such a powerful film is the way it uses its characters to embody fascinating issues of political and economic history. Sayles recognizes the ironies and tensions that can arise not only between enemies but among people of goodwill, too. He does an excellent job of showing how various issues get tangled up with each other - worker solidarity and racial prejudice, for instance, or pacifism and the urge to fight for one's rights.

He also builds enormous drama from the wildly diverse backgrounds and aspirations of blacks and whites; owners and workers; insiders and scabs; dreamers who live for tomorrow's gains and cynics who fear losing what little they have.

The satisfactions of the film grow from the way its conflicts and misunderstandings are resolved. The resolutions are often imperfect, and they aren't enough to avert the story's sad climax. They reveal an essential hopefulness in Sayles's attitude, though. And they remind us that the essential movement of American history has been toward human reconciliation and away from the exploitation represented by the Stone Mountain Mining Company.

That's the optimistic bottom line of ``Matewan,'' despite its depictions of rivalry and suspicion among class and race. And that's what stays most clearly in the mind after the story's bloody climax momentarily fills the screen.

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