Review: The Last Mountain

By  · Published on June 9th, 2011

Most everyone is aware of the United States’ addiction to coal, one of its longstanding bedrock industries. Entire state economies are built on the business of coal mining, and the companies carrying it out boast deep pockets and overwhelming influence inside the Washington Beltway. In one sense, this seems fundamental: it’s how we power our homes and businesses.

What you might not realize, however, is just how dangerous an addiction this really is. Not just dangerous in an abstract, global warming-facilitating sense but dangerous in that controversial practices employed by these companies, and a total disregard for environmental regulations, are putting your health at risk.

It’s happening today, right now, all over the country. The mountaintop removal process, in which layers of mountains are blasted away to get at deposits in their cores, is propelling an extraordinary amount of toxins and dust into our air and water supply. Burning coal, at hundreds of power plants across the country, emits a similarly deadly blend of pollutants. Cancer, kidney disease, possibly an increase in levels of autism – these are but some of the tragic effects scientists have directly tied into these practices.

So it’s no wonder there’s such urgency imbued in The Last Mountain, a documentary depicting the efforts put forth by citizens of Coal River Valley, West Virginia to save their prized Coal River Mountain from destruction at the hands of giant Massey Energy. This conflict might seem a micro, local issue, without consequence for those of us residing outside of Appalachia. It’s especially hard to process given just how casually so many of us waste electricity. The light goes on, the light goes off. No harm done, right?

Wrong. As framed by Bill Haney’s picture, the battle is nothing less than a frontline of an ongoing war that’s shaping our future in troubling ways. It’s a struggle that gets at the heart of what we want this country to be – a nation in which everyone is entitled to a fair measure of life, liberty and happiness, or one in which the privileged few are bestowed with those rights at the expense of the rest of us.

The movie is conventionally structured – stern talking heads are interspersed with stock footage and damning statistics that float above ruined landscapes. Its portrait of environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s involvement in the Coal River protests veers toward hagiography. Scant attention is paid to rebutting the commonly extolled benefits of the mountaintop removal practice and the picture could have used a greater emphasis on the economic pluses of alternate energy.

Still, it’s an impassioned cry of disgust, a fervent plea to wake us up to a grand injustice shrouded in this most mundane form.

The Upside: Passionately made and consistently eye-opening, the film lays out its case with gusto.

The Downside: It feels a bit polemical at times, though that’s not entirely unwarranted.

On the Side: The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.