Any year that sees the release of a new film and a new novel from John Sayles can safely be called a banner year. The film, Amigo, will be in theaters by August; the novel, A Moment in the Sun, is available now. This lengthy interview with Amy Goodman touches on many of the things I admire most about Sayles: his unfussy craftsmanship, his quietly determined and unapologetic leftism, his willingness to probe new avenues of experience in literature and film. In a summer when David Mamet has released a book that serves chiefly as a tombstone for a once vital talent, Sayles (only three years Mamet’s junior) shows himself to be as intellectually spry and engaging as he’s ever been.
As a filmmaker, Sayles is a self-taught apprentice, and those first few movies were more admirable than enjoyable. The Return of the Secaucus Seven, his 1980 debut as an independent director, is notable mainly as the original for Lawrence Kasdan’s slicked up The Big Chill. Lianna and Baby It’s You are more tyro work, and in an era when black filmmakers have finally broken through, The Brother From Another Planet is sometimes embarrassing to watch. The apprenticeship came to a decisive end in 1987 with Matewan, Sayles’ first great film, and one of the landmark movies of the decade.
When Matewan came out I remember some reviewers complaining that the bad guys (“detectives,” aka strikebreakers and thugs, brought in to crush a 1920 coal-miners strike in West Virginia) were too evil to believe. Well, folks, they really were that scummy back then, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of it. Atlas Shrugged was still decades away, but the powers that be were very Galtian in their view of employees as lesser beings to be worked down to rags, wrung out and tossed away. With New Jersey’s own Gov. Windbag on a crusade against teachers and civil-service unions, and corporate shills like Amity Shlaes lying about how the New Deal needlessly shackled the invisible hand of the marketplace, Matewan is a tonic, and a reminder of just how bad things got before FDR rescued capitalism from itself.
But the pleasures of Matewan go beyond its educational value. I can think of no other movie in which the sheer physical courage of ordinary people — not soldiers, not police, but rustics accustomed to getting the short end of the stick from life — confronting well-armed, well-financed evil is so thrilling to watch. The scene in which the young preacher Danny (Will Oldham) uses the Biblical parable of Potiphar’s wife to send a warning to the miners, right under the strikebreakers’ noses, is bravura filmmaking. And the slight dorkiness of Sheriff Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) turns into pure Clint Eastwood badassery when the head strikebreaker (the wonderfully slithery Kevin Tighe) tries to back him into a corner.
Matewan brought a new fluency and ease to Sayles’ film work, and pointed the way to other great ones: Eight Men Out, The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star. I liked Limbo well enough (even the ambiguous ending, which drove some people nuts) but Amigo promises to bring Sayles back to the epic style he discovered in Matewan. We hear about “big” summer movies that turn out to be shriveled, stunted exercises in marketing and computer effects. Sayles knows how to make movies with big brains and big hearts, and having him back on the scene is big news indeed.