Harlan County, USA: Criterion Collection
Criterion // PG // $39.95 // May 23, 2006
Review by Randy Miller III | posted May 8, 2006
Highly Recommended
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Winner of the 1977 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA (1976) is about as down-to-earth as films get---literally. More persuasive than informative, this account of a violent coal miners' strike in eastern Kentucky is still compelling in a way that few documentaries are. Combining rare footage of the miners at work with a concise account of the strike as it unfolds, Harlan County, USA remains focused as it rolls with the punches.

There's certainly nothing wrong when a documentary enlightens viewers by "picking up the pieces"; for example, Alan Resnais' Night and Fog (1955) recounts the brutal murders of Holocaust victims by visiting concentration camps over a decade after the tragic events. Films like Harlan County, USA are on the other side of the fence. Kopple and company filmed the coal miners in their dismal living and working conditions---largely brought upon by their employer's refusal to let them unionize ---and they had no idea they'd be there for roughly four years. Of course, they also didn't think the thirteen-month strike would resort to violence and death.

First-time viewers will be surprised to see the hardened, oppressive environment these workers and their families lived in: with dirt roads, no indoor plumbing and the lack of other 1970s "modern conveniences", this particular area of Harlan County reads more like the Depression-era deep south than a town only four years away from the so-called "Decade of Excess". The bleak atmosphere is punctuated by music from local and national folk/bluegrass singers like Nimrod Workman and Hazel Dickens, resulting in a stiff one-two punch that sets an appropriate mood for the violent strike that unfolds in an unsettling but captivating way.

To detail such a strike and the specific events that unfold would really go against Harlan County, USA's greatest strength: its unpredictability. What's also amazing about the film, though, is the loyalty that Kopple and her crew show to the miners and their cause. It's true that this story is strictly one-sided in its presentation: the crew literally spends day and night with the dedicated men and women of Harlan County as they keep the home fires burning. Those looking for a long-winded, dry account of the saga should look elsewhere; this focuses on a more emotional and human side of the story, warts and all. In more ways than one, we see names and faces…not just facts and figures.

It's certainly not as dramatized as films like Harlan County War (2000), but this is still a story told from a dedicated point of view---so those who appreciate passionate documentaries will certainly get their fill. Presented in grand fashion by The Criterion Collection, Harlan County, USA arrives on DVD in an excellent package that fans should really enjoy. Featuring a terrific technical presentation and a collection of appropriate bonus features, we're treated to additional insight regarding the film---not to mention just how difficult it was to make in the first place. Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Considering the harsh conditions under which the bulk of Harlan County, USA was shot, Crtierion's director-approved 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks excellent. The earthy, washed-out color palette and abundant film grain---undoubtedly due to the original source material---suit the film's style perfectly, while digital problems (including edge enhancement, etc.) are virtually nowhere to be found. The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is very clean from start to finish, offering clear dialogue and strong music cues. Optional English captions are provided for the main feature only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen above, the 1.33:1 menu designs for this release are a bit dull, but at least they're easy to navigate. This 104-minute film has been divided into 25 chapters (26, if you count color bars), while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The actual packaging is especially nice, as this one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase along with a booklet (covered in more detail below), a postcard and the usual Criterion back catalogue.

Bonus Features

Packed with informative bonus features, it's DVDs like this one that remind us how a single-disc Special Edition should be done. Leading off is an Audio Commentary featuring director/producer Barbara Kopple and editor Nancy Baker; though it's been three decades since the film's release, both participants fill the track with valuable insight and personal memories. Pairing off with the commentary is an informative Making-Of Documentary (21:42, below left) which also features new words from several crew members and strike participants. Also included are a handful of never-before-seen Outtakes (6 clips, 26:17 total) culled from the hundreds of hours of footage shot by Kopple and company. Especially interesting is an additional scene featuring Nimrod Workman, a local singer affected by black lung disease.

Up next are a pair of Interviews: the first features Hazel Dickens (11:43), and includes insight from the singer about her songs from the film (above right); the second features director John Sayles (6:27) and his particular interest in the hardships of coal miners. Also on board is Harlan County, USA at Sundance (14:01), a 2005 panel discussion with some of the crew (moderated by Roger Ebert), as well as the film's gripping Theatrical Trailer (3:02). Last but not least are a pair of Text Essays included in the booklet, penned by film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger.

One additional note: the bonus features, interestingly enough, are all presented in 16x9 anamorphic widescreen when applicable; in fact, only the outtakes and menu screens remain in 1.33:1, making the overall presentation quite consistent. So while it's great that the actual content of these extras is fascinating, it's especially nice to see that they've been presented with such care. This should be the rule in DVD production, not the exception.

Final Thoughts

Any way you slice it, Harlan County, USA is a fascinating film that's been given an impressive treatment on DVD. From an excellent technical presentation to a host of informative bonus features, this is one well-rounded DVD package that documentary fans can't afford to miss. Though Criterion's price tag may scare off a few budget conscious buyers, those well aware of the company's track record know that they're well worth the price of admission. From top to bottom, Harlan County, USA is bound to be one of 2006's best one-disc packages in any genre. Very, very Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.

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