This is what a documentary looks like. Harlan County, U.S.A. is a landmark of American cinema any way you splice it—as a historical document detailing the prolonged, bitter strike of eastern Kentucky coal miners in the '70s; as an artifact of and contribution to the feminist movement; as a fascinating bridge between the "direct cinema" ideals of the Maysles brothers and D. A. Pennebaker and a diverse legacy of first-person documentaries. The film isn't without flaws (a background segment about the then-recent history of the United Mine Workers of America appears, misleadingly, to be contemporaneous with the other events in the film), but there's nothing remotely like it. For these reasons, and probably plenty more unknown to me, Harlan County, U.S.A. was selected for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 1990.
Now it's one of the relatively few documentaries to receive the buff 'n' polish of a Criterion DVD release. The good news is that the transfer looks great. The sound—a crucial component in the film, which uses distinctive Appalachian folk songs about coal mining and union anthems like "Which Side Are You On?" to trace a deep vein of resistance throughout the cultural history of the region—is bright and clear. But the supplements leave something to be desired. There's something increasingly irritating about DVD releases of newer films that attempt to mimic the experience of seeing a film at a festival. While it might be a thrill to meet director Barbara Kopple in person, her personality alone is not historically significant, and the film is. The self-congratulatory commentary track in which Kopple and her primary editor reminisce about how scary it was to film a given sequence (when the danger is glaringly obvious), or about the cozy New York loft where they used to eat lunch during postproduction (when we really don't care), feels flimsy up against such an immediate and engaging film.
Thirty years later, the most intriguing thing about the documentary is its implicit, complicated feminism. Given the volatility of the picket line (everyone on both sides packs pistols in their waistbands or bodices), the presence of the filmmakers never goes unnoticed. The conscience of the lens pressures the company thugs at the same time it transforms the young Kopple into a character of her own. In one indelible scene, she coyly spars with head scab Basil Collins (who's twirling a gun just off camera, we're told in the commentary) in a posturing exchange about press credentials that anticipates the way the mining company ends up underestimating the women's booster club. In the booster club meetings, astoundingly vivid miners' wives—most memorably, Lois Scott and Judie Grusenberry—speechify about health standards, pay, and the need for strike stamina in between forcefully quashing arguments about who's sleeping with whose men. Which side are you on, indeed.