In the five years since the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the momentum for action on climate change seems to have gone from a fever pitch for change to a muddled message on what to do next.
That’s one of the reasons why writer director Bill Haney has approached his documentary “The Last Mountain” from a different vantage point. By focusing not only on environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. but also on a group of West Virginia residents as they try to stop coal companies from the process of mountaintop removal, he intends to personalize the issue of coal and its impact on climate change, and to show how it is relevant to average Americans.
The film, Haney says, turns “some of these issues — global climate change is an example — from something that has been muddied by talkradio and what I would consider ‘faux science,’ and connect it to public health issues, which are more immediate (and) much more personal, so the consequences of our actions are more poignant to us.”
After “An Inconvenient Truth,” which grossed $49.8 million worldwide, environmental documentaries have had a spotty record in theaters. Despite extensive publicity, Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The 11th Hour” grossed just under $1 million in 2007, while last year’s “GasLand” seemed to come out of nowhere and win an Oscar nomination, and even helped bring the word “fracking” into the national dialogue, but it drew just over $49,000 at the B.O. Other titles have struggled to get a theatrical release.
Another factor that may bring attention to “The Last Mountain” is that it has a discernible foe: Massey Energy, one of the largest coal producers in the country. The doc posits that lawmakers have been swayed by coal industry claims that barring mountaintop removal would cost jobs, and by hefty campaign contributions.
“Whenever you see an environmental destruction of this kind, you are also going to see this subversion of democracy, the disappearance of this public process by which individuals who live in these communities can participate in the decisions that impact their communities,” Kennedy says.
He sees environmental agencies becoming “sock puppets for the industry they are supposed to regulate.”
In one scene, a group of activists protests the practice of mountaintop removal at the state’s Dept. of Environmental Protection, but protesters are surrounded by state police and, as another barrier, hundreds of coal workers. “So the people who are speaking at that little rally can’t be heard,” Kennedy says.
Kennedy says that the practice of mountaintop removal is akin to “exploding the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb once a week,” and has helped residents of the Coal River Valley push an alternative — wind energy.
The film blames the Bush administration for lifting severe limits on mountaintop removal by changing the interpretation of a short phrase in environmental guidelines. But activists also worry President Obama won’t take action, since he has advocated for things such as “clean coal,” and has depended on lawmakers from coal producing states to push his agenda forward.
When Kennedy was meeting with White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel in 2009, and Obama made a short visit, “I was able to say what my father said. He always asked the question … why West Virginia, which has the richest resources of 50 states, is the 49th (poorest) state?’ Coal is not bringing prosperity to West Virginia, it is bringing poverty and permanent poverty to the state.”
The administration has since cracked down on the practice of mountaintop removal.
Massey Energy’s general counsel Shane Harvey said, “We have not seen the movie, but after watching the trailer it appears that the movie will contain nothing new with respect to Mr. Kennedy’s long-held views about the coal industry.”
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Assn., appears in the film, but he told Variety he has not yet seen it. It will get a screening in the state next month, to those who attend the five-day march to Blair Mountain in West Virginia starting June 6, in which Kennedy and other celebrity activists will participate. The site is the one on which, in 1921, miners made a final stand against coal companies as they sought unionization. The peak is now threatened with mountaintop removal.
“There’s a tremendous amount of money at stake” for coal companies, Haney says, “so it wouldn’t surprise me to see that they fight back. In a curious way, if they don’t, it will mean that the film didn’t have any consequence.”
Given the challenges for today’s documentaries to get through the din, that’s become a new kind of yardstick..