Title: The Last Mountain
Director: Bill Haney
Eye-opening and gut-punching on a factual level but still very much possessing a human heart, ‘The Last Mountain’ details a small community’s fight against the coal industry in the valleys of Appalachia, in West Virginia, and gives lie to the notion that the debate over independence from Middle Eastern oil is the only — or even the most important — front in the battle for America’s energy future. It’s the most jointly effective and stirring environmental documentary since the Oscar-winning ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, and sure to be a contender for Academy Award shortlisting later this year.
Director Bill Haney’s Sundance-minted film digs into the heretofore unsexy and largely unknown issue of mountaintop coal removal, which is a particularly invasive and destructive form of strip-mining, and slowly and effectively builds a persuasive case that insidious corporations have allied themselves with (mostly though certainly not exclusively Republican) politicians and their short-term interests to chip away at the efficacy of the 1972 Clean Water Act and a host of other greater-public-good environmental regulations. Expert interviews abound, but we also get to know the residents of Coal River Valley, some of whom are banding together to try to save their community.
Haney’s film is a somewhat but not entirely subjective genre entry, benefiting immeasurably from a good, pointed diner conversation between Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association. (As one might imagine, their opinions diverge considerably.) That the tired “local jobs” arguments Raney and others trot out are right out of the obstructionist’s status quo playbook (the now-indicted CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, ‘literally’ wraps himself in the American flag, slagging environmentalists as job-killing dilettantes while decked out in a gaudy flag-print shirt and hat) may make them risible from afar, but it’s not a laughing matter for the families of six deceased victims of suspicious brain tumors along one sad street.
A bit more could be done earlier to tie the Coal Valley fight to the rest of the country (given that half of all railroad freight involves coal, and thus they too have a vested interest in keeping their best customers around, and profitable), and to detail some of the specifics of Massey’s terrible record of safety violations (more than 60,000 over a six-year period). The lesson there is that corporations — perhaps even more than ever, given their new, unlimited freedom of “speech” — have the chance to help write a lot of the regulations that bind them, but then also retroactively buy their way out of other violations, for virtual pennies on the dollar.
‘The Last Mountain’ is a powerful and unsettling call to action, yet again throwing a spotlight on the virulent schemes that moneyed interests hatch to wring as much private profit as possible from what are ostensibly public lands. Lest one think it’s all doom-and-gloom, however, there’s also a heartening, clear-eyed case made for the effectiveness of various alternative energies — including wind, a sector the United States could yet dominate, if only we located the muscle and civilian fortitude to force the hand of various power brokers, and loosen their steely grip on true American innovation. For more information on the film, visit the www.TheLastMountainMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon