A clutch of hillbilly Davids bests a corporate Goliath in keenly observed environmental docu “On Coal River.” In the vein of Barbara Kopple’s 1977 landmark, “Harlan County, USA,” helmers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood walk a fine line between the gravity of corporate despoiling in Appalachia and the can-do spirit of the beleaguered but unbowed locals in this respectful, thorough and relevant telling. Result is a pic at once informative and entertaining, suggesting healthy fest life and strong tube sales.
“I kinda like being a hillbilly,” grins lanky former coal miner Ed Wiley, looking every inch the part in his jeans, T-shirt and baseball cap. He’s certainly underestimated by Massey Energy, the coal extractor that’s constructed a huge and alarmingly porous dam of toxic slurry that’s seeping into the West Virginia valley’s water system and adversely affecting the health of the children — including Wiley’s granddaughter — at Marsh Fork Elementary School immediately downstream.
Wiley’s joined in a loose coalition of activists by Bo Webb, who’s unafraid to get in the face of plant security when necessary, and Judy Bonds, who tours her family’s overgrown cemetery with dump trucks trundling behind her, proclaiming, “One day they’ll be gone … and I’ll be here.”
Remarkably, it appears many townspeople support Massey Energy, underscoring the tangled yet polite web of allegiances among big business and at-risk workers and townspeople in Appalachia. Typical of the light touches sprinkled throughout, an unidentified yet obviously hard-partying local momentarily disarms the crisis by announcing, “I haven’t had a drink of water since Moby Dick was a guppy!”
When Wiley’s done wrong by nervous-looking Gov. Joe Manchin, who pledges support but later declares the school safe, he takes things up a notch and walks from the capital, Charleston, to Washington, D.C., for an audience with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who seems honestly astonished that Wiley actually made the trip on foot.
Tech package is nimble, though the onscreen presence of a corporate rep would have injected more balance. Unsurprisingly, Kopple is prominent among the pic’s advisers.