Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival 2011.
If you need something new to be incensed about, “The Last Mountain,” a documentary directed by Bill Haney (of 2007’s “The Price of Sugar”), will do the trick nicely. Its outrage of choice is mountaintop removal (MTR) mining, the considerably controversial practice of deforesting and then dynamiting mountain ridges to extract coal seams, then piling everything back up in roughly the same shape — except nothing ever seems to grow there again. MTR is closely associated with Appalachia, and the film’s primary battleground is Coal River Valley, WV, where locals and activists gather to try to prevent Massey Energy, the country’s fourth largest producer of coal, from mining Coal River Mountain.
If the issues were only environmental, “The Last Mountain” would be something of a familiar refrain, but the film has more up its sleeve than (to be sure, wrenching) helicopter shots of the decimated moonscapes that are the working mines, barren construction zones permanently altering the face of the countryside. Coal processing plants and sludge dams release toxins into the air and water. The film finds communities cut through with high occurrences of brain tumors, an elementary school coated in silica dust from a nearby facility, families whose homes are destroyed by flooding caused by the rearranged landscape, towns emptied out by broken unions and a changing industry able to up its output while cutting its labor, politicians who are quick to pronounce themselves a “friend of coal” despite what coal extraction is doing to their constituents. Earnest dreadlocked protesters come into town to chain themselves to machinery and camp in trees, and the Coal River group finds itself a high profile defender in the papery voiced Robert Kennedy Jr., but it’s the locals, fighting on behalf of their children, their neighbors, their homes, that linger in the mind and that seem best suited to answering the counterprotests from workers afraid for their jobs.
Ah, jobs. Massey Energy is a major employer in an area with few other options, and at every protest “The Last Mountain” documents, there are miners howling for the speakers to go home, trying to protect their means of survival, insisting that coal has to be safe, since it’s been used for so long. When Kennedy meets a Massey exec for a public debate, the man uses his membership in the community as a shield, hosting Kennedy at a local diner and answering his every damning charge by insisting that his company is taking care of the area by providing it with thousands of jobs. It’s a frightening portrait of a truly dysfunctional capitalistic relationship, in which Big Coal soothes those who falls in its shadow with paternalistic language while literally poisoning them and the land on which they live.
“The Last Mountain” does not yet have US distribution.