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Harlan County War: A Review by Nate Hill

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Harlan County War is a rare little TV movie that takes a partly fictional look at the union wars in rural Kentucky during the 1970’s, when a plucky band of coal miners and their wives took to the picket line in attempt to establish better working and living conditions. The story and title of the film have roots in the union wars of the 1930’s, which set the stage for this tale. Holly Hunter plays Ruby Kincaid, wife of Silas (Ted Levine) a miner who suffers through the harsh labor everyday. The townspeople are tired of the injuries, the deaths and the deadly black lung infections, and are given reluctant hope when compassionate union official Warren Jakopovich (Stellen Skarsgard) arrives to their county, promising change. Many locals are skeptical due to past corruption and disloyalty, but soon the company gets nasty and they realize that Jakopovich may be their only chance. Hunter is as fired up as she always is, her accent thicker than the moonshine everyone swills. I tracked this film down for Levine (Skarsgard too), and this is one of the best roles he’s ever gotten. He’s usually in character parts like the violent thug, stern general, gruff cowboy or yes, the skin stealing serial killer. Here he’s just a plain rural family man, a good hearted fellow who wants the best for his kin and county. Levine works wonders playing it straight here and I wish he’d get thrown more meaty and down to earth roles like this. Skarsgard can jump between being the most terrifying psychopath to the most comforting, sympathetic characters, and plays Jakopovich with compassion and dogged determination. The character building scenes between the three actors is brilliant. I feel like there’s a longer edit out there somewhere, because it jumps a bit and forgets to address one plot turn entirely, but alas it’s a tough one to affordably track down and this is the only version I could get. It’s made for TV and that shows at the seams sometimes, but it’s still solid drama about something important, and crafted very well.