The coal industry receives a proper thumping in the righteously angry “The Last Mountain.” The myriad environmental problems created by the industry’s practice of mountaintop removal (extracting coal by literally leveling a mountain with explosives and bulldozers) is the film’s central concern. Its larger agenda, to wean the country off coal power to renewables, lends it more political weight. Pic repeats the by-now-patented devices of activist filmmaking, suggesting that the tired form needs an overhaul, but its use as an organizing tool should give it long life in vid.
Starting with a few of the many factoids which pepper the film, doc states each citizen’s use of coal (16 pounds a day) for electrical use before explaining that half of the country’s coal reserves lie in Appalachia, site of Coal River Mountain. The West Virginia peak, situated between two mountaintop removal projects that have turned the earth’s surface into a lunar scape, is viewed as the last bulwark against the longterm mining ambitions of Massey Energy, the big bad corporation of the film.
The apparent villain is Massey’s now-retired CEO, Don Blankenship, whose record of union-busting, cavalier disregard of environmental regulations and decrying of global warning science (perhaps because coal mining is the single greatest contributor to greenhouse gases) render him somewhat monstrous. On the other side is veteran environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., who shows genuine interest in the local efforts to shut down Massey’s Coal River project.
Director and co-writer Bill Haney (who made the similarly preachy “The Price of Sugar”) lacks a sense of poetry about the documentary form and opts for something closer to a sledgehammer approach. Thus, the message can’t be confused, or disregarded. Kennedy examines Massey’s attempts to “reclaim” mined hilltops and finds them to be nothing but a groomed rock pile. The local rivers and streams are choked with a nasty brew of selenium, lead, arsenic and manganese. An “ash pond,” the toxic reservoir built to contain mining runoff, is situated just above the local grade school. Brain tumor rates are off the charts in the area.In sum, the place is a death zone, but the locals led by Bo Webb, Ed Wiley and Maria Gunnoe can’t seem to receive a decent hearing with any government officials, which leads to the inevitable discussion of how the coal industry’s massive financial contributions to politicians’ campaigns, as well as their perceived role as West Virginia’s primary employer, have given them uncommon power. In the face of this, non-violent direct actions by such groups as Climate Ground Zero have at least temporarily delayed Massey’s plans.
More effective has been recent Obama administration rulings that have re-inserted teeth into aspects of the Clean Water and Clean Air acts which had been defanged by the George W. Bush White House. Kennedy receives some credit here for lobbying Obama personally.
Wind power also receives a boost from the film, as it argues for wind’s environmental as well as cost-related advantages over coal, whose real costs are covered over in years of federal-enacted subsidies to the industry.
Pic ends with one of the “to get involved…” graphics so common in American issue-themed docs since “The Cove.” The sheer volume of information buzzing by becomes dizzying, and less effective for being so. Production values are super slick.