A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
There's a scene toward the end of "Joe Hill" that seems to underline the movie's shaky political and moral position. Joe Hill himself (a Swedish immigrant who became one of the most colorful and important organizers in the industrial Workers of the World) has been convicted of murder in Utah, and waits on Death Row. There is considerable doubt that he's guilty. Even Woodrow Wilson tries to intervene on his behalf. But the Utah authorities want a victim. And in a Salt Lake City boardinghouse, three of Joe's Wobbly friends sit silently. One finally says: "The question is -- is he more good to us alive, or dead?"
It is a question that Bo Widerberg's film never quite faces. There are times, in fact, when we wonder whether Widerberg himself doesn't prefer Joe Hill dead. That way Joe and his revolution can be distant and romantic and picturesque, and we can shed a genteel tear at the end when Joe finishes his Last Will. He says be hopes his ashes can be scattered to help some frail flower grow.
More to the point is probably his famous final message to "Big Bill" Haywood, the Wobbly chief: "Don't mourn --organize." But this new film by Widerberg is on the side of the flowers, not the organizers, and in a lot of ways it resembles two previous Widerberg works, "Elvira Madigan" and "Adalen 31." I admired both of them, and I don't think "Joe Hill" is exactly a bad movie, but Widerberg's sentiment has gotten the best of him.
The fact is that the Wobblies, and the methods used against them, were not very colorful or romantic at the time. It was only years later, when Joe Hill's songs were better known than his philosophy, that events began to lose their perspective. After the Wobblies were duly jailed, executed, shot in massacres (in Seattle) or castrated (in Cairo, Ill.), it was safe to make them into the stuff of folk legend.