It shouldn’t take much effort for a documentary about the coal industry to make you mad. The industry’s downside seems pretty steep. Appalachian coal companies busted unions, broke laws, lowered wages, poisoned people, and depopulated towns. To better get at the coal seams, the companies cut down swaths of trees and blast away the tops of mountains and dump the debris on the valleys below. Sometimes people live in those valleys. Some of those people appear in “The Last Mountain,’’ and they’re mad. Their neighbors are dead. Their health is failing. They’re convinced no one cares. These people don’t seem isolated, but they do seem alone. Sometimes Bobby Kennedy Jr. might walk through the front door, into a diner, or onto a coal company’s property, and express concern. Sometimes people are impressed. Sometimes they’re so not. He’s the Yankee elite.
“The Last Mountain’’ is that sort of movie, the sort that sends a Kennedy into the West Virginia wilderness to press for change. It’s sincere. It’s misguided. It feels like a stunt. Kennedy has written two books of environmental activism. The second one, “Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy,’’ appears to be the basis for his participation with this film. His outrage just doesn’t really connect with anyone else’s. His activism might be another matter. Kennedy is credited with helping get the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict the granting of mine permits.
The best scenes in Bill Haney’s movie, the bulk of which takes place from 2007 to 2010, involve the first-person stories of women and men whose lives the coal companies have ruined. What they tell Haney is heartbreaking and blood-boiling. What they do to get people to pay them some attention takes gumption. A small group of West Virginians shows up at the offices of Joe Manchin, who was then the governor. They’ve brought along a girl who’s been raising money for her school, which sits in harm’s way of the mine. Haney paints Manchin as being in the pocket of the coal industry, where, we’re told, lots of other elected officials reside. (Manchin is currently in the US Senate.)
There’s also a lot infuriating mileage to be got from Massey Energy. That’s the company which owned the unsafe mine where 29 men died last year, and it’s hard to imagine an individual with as many violations and infractions as Massey has being permitted to walk the streets. But the mine remains open for business. (The film’s symbolic centerpiece is Coal River Mountain, billed as the last mountain in Appalachia not to be blown up for coal. Yet, for the coal companies, its size and scope make it the most desirable.)
Haney tries to see where the industry’s coming from. He spends some time with the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, Bill Raney. Raney says the coal companies are compliant with environmental standards. He tells Kennedy that coal haters should really think about the livelihoods of the miners and where else do you think you’d get all the electricity you use? The most aggravating thing about Haney’s movie is that he thinks he knows. A barreling montage of anything that needs power ends with a heavenly shot of a wind turbine.
It didn’t seem possible to top the earnestness of the civil-disobeyers who succeed in irritating the coal companies. But turning the movie into an infomercial for wind farms beats all. What had been another searing indictment of corporate venality and the trampling of average people becomes a righteous embarrassment. It isn’t that the turbines aren’t better than coal. (The movie most certainly casts them as more romantic.) But suddenly it’s as if we’ve been stopped on the streets and asked to sign a petition based mostly on hope and assertions. The coal industry’s tactics are appalling. But to a lesser extent so is this.
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