Matewan Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Will Oldham Director: John Sayles Turning his back on the studio system after a brief flirtation - Baby, It's You (1983) - simply served to inspire maverick American director John Sayles to move on to bigger and more meaningful things. With Matewan - and again with Eight Men Out that followed a year later - Sayles was free to explore the human dilemmas, and relationships, that have been at the core of his finest work. Matewan, however, remains the director's most powerful piece of cinema simply because - unlike the world of baseball in which Eight Men Out was set - it focuses on a period of American history hitherto relatively unexplored. That Sayles is somehow able to make his audience believe they are watching actual history unfold speaks volumes of his power as a storyteller and about the attention to detail you can find in his unique - and honest - style of filmmaking. Matewan leaves you impassioned. Set in the West Virginian town from which it takes its title, Sayles throws you head first into the lives of the coal miners of the 1920s - and into battle with them as they fight to find a way of releasing themselves from the chokehold of the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Chris Cooper - so often brilliant in Sayles' films - plays the union man who tries to band the mining community together into strike action. Nothing is ever entirely simple with Sayles' narratives and here he allows us to view the lives of everyone involved in the conflict that ensues - from the miners, to the company men, to the immigrants brought in to keep the mines operating. James Earl Jones plays the miners' leader - a man hobbled by his sense of duty, even when he knows it might lead to disaster. There are faults in all the men portrayed and Sayles opens up the conflict to reveal the realities of society at the time. The divisions remain deep, he seems to be saying, even though a half century has passed since the end of the civil war. Along with the drama Sayles creates, it is the atmosphere of Matewan that lingers long after the credits role. And for that he has Haskell Wexler to thank. The cinematographer for such classics as In the Heat of the Night (1967) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), shoots through the dark - and through misty backwoods shadows - to build a palpable sense of paranoia and desperation. Little wonder Wexler garnered an Oscar nod for his toil (he lost out to Vittorio Storaro for The Last Emperor). A flawless examination of the human condition, and one of Sayles' finest endeavours.