Film Review: The Last Mountain

I always walk away with such conflicting feelings whenever I see such eye-opening, alarmist documentaries like Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain. On one hand, I feel like I live in an absolute bubble, completely oblivious to a particular subject that is of vital significance to our society and the world in general. On the other, I am grateful for being alerted to such devastating topics and feel somewhat educated as I peek  outside of my proverbial bubble. The matter then becomes how many movie-goers will also see this small film with a small distribution – and then, of greater importance, what action will the public at large take, if any? This is perhaps the ultimate goal of the documentary filmmaker – get your audience to take action.

The Last Mountain is classic David versus Goliath. However, I am not sure if David ever faced such a formidable opponent as Big Coal. Haney’s film focuses on the battle between the longtime residents of Coal River Valley in West Virginia and the powerful coal companies who continue with the ruinous practice of Mountain Top Removal. Almost half the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal – and a third of this coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia where the battle over blasting the top of “the last mountain” is taking place. The humble townsfolk claim that the practice pollutes our air and water – and is responsible for many deaths in the area. The coal companies, of course, have their own agenda and continue to find loopholes and political friends to support their efforts.

Haney throws many frightening statistics and facts about Mountain Top Removal and the coal industry in general our way – while still managing to focus primarily on the passionate residents of Coal River Mountain. And though the film depicts their own struggle, Haney makes it abundantly clear that this is not simply a West Virginia problem, but a problem that the entire country must face as well.

There are clear heroes and villains portrayed here, with Massey Energy, the third largest coal company in America and responsible for more Mountain Top Removal than any other company, being at the forefront of the black hat brigade. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, is shown in the worst light and has since retired amidst civil and criminal investigations. In addition to the many egregious safety regulation violations under Massey’s leadership, he also proved to be an enemy of the unionized coal miner – eliminating over 40,000 jobs and hiring non-union workers. Joe Manchin, the Governor of West Virginia is also implicated. Haney illustrates how Big Coal and politicians are in bed together, and does so in one beautiful juxtaposition where Governor Manchin is in his offices telling local residents that he will do everything in his power to help their cause and have a new school built for the children out of harm’s way of toxic pollutants. In the very next scene, Manchin is seen at a political gathering proclaiming, “I’m a friend of coal.” Another chilling fact is that the coal mining industry has spent more than $86 million on political campaigns and lobbying efforts. You begin to realize why leaders like George W. Bush and yes, Barack Obama don’t act in the best interests of the people and our environment. Bush received tons of money from the coal companies – and the Obama administration has been hesitant in altering the legalization of Mountain Top Removal for the very same reasons.

The heroes are many – those residents of Coal River Valley who are fighting the good fight. Their mouthpiece is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whose WaterKeeper Alliance has fought for clean water in the United States. Mr. Kennedy gets a lot of camera time here and he is clearly passionate about the cause and not by simply signing over a check, but by fighting alongside those in need, fighting the uphill battle. One wonders if this is one of those documentaries that tell only one side of the story, but when Mr. Kennedy confronts Bill Raney (president of the West Virginia Coal Association) in a local restaurant to discuss their differing positions, Raney comes off looking ignorant and silly, without a leg to stand on.

The Last Mountain is a moving and powerful film that shows us how much power we as citizens can have if we stand up for what we believe in and act. We may not have heard of Coal River Mountain residents Bo Webb, Ed Willey, Jennifer Hall-Massey, or Maria Gunnoe – but they are clearly heroes in their own right. They are fighting not only to save their own small place on the map – but for the rest of America as well. Gunnoe states at the end of the film that we are all connected to coal in one way or another. The Last Mountain does an admirable job at helping us take our very own positions on this fight.

Rating:      
Director:   Bill Haney
Year:          2011

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