In the state where it takes place, “The Last Mountain” occupies the loneliest corner, the “last “referring to the Coal River Mountain, the only peak that hasn’t been reduced to rubble for the sake of coal production in West Virginia. And the film itself, the latest from “The Price of Sugar” director Bill Haney, is equally isolating, a well-built argument against the destruction of the Appalachian mountains to feed our nation’s energy needs that ditches any sense of objectivity early on and directs its message firmly at those who already lean towards banning corporations from drilling to prevent the destruction of the region and worse, the debilitating effects on the health of its citizenry as both the water and air become contaminated with coal dust.
Even amidst the debris, Haney clearly lays out the gradual demolition of mountain tops and the erosion of laws that were intended to protect them from the 1970s forward. In Haney’s view, this is an apolitical debate between those who value life and those who don’t, making the villains’ greed especially reckless. Fox News is a conspicuously ambivalent presence during news montages, the then-Governor of West Virginia, now-Senator Joe Manchin, who doesn’t miss a chance to say he’s a “friend of coal,” is a Democrat and the growing swell of anti-coal advocates look the part of those who should be voting Democrat but likely skew red.
Yet the film still finds a white knight in Robert F. Kennedy Jr., less a subject for the film than a collaborator who helps illustrate West Virginia’s plight from a state of idyllic horse farms to polluted ghost towns, and an obvious villain in Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who’s introduced wearing a particularly garish red, white and blue outfit and bragging about the $1 million he’s spent on the pro-coal rally he’s speaking in front of. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Blankenship is on the hook for a lot more than money in Haney’s documentary — between the lobbyists Massey’s hired to press for less drilling restrictions and the workers he’s let go to make way for machines, he’s left behind blackened earth where communities used to be.
That much of “The Last Mountain” actually is beautiful, with polished cinematography from the trio of Tim Hotchner, Stephen McCarthy and Jerry Risius and deft editing by Peter Rhodes, makes the medicine go down easier, but there’s no doubt to some, it will still feel like medicine, even as expertly executed as the final product is. As a film, it suffers from a syndrome of many activist-driven documentaries, which as important as they are, still connect on an ideological level rather than an emotional one, despite the scenes of the elderly being dragged from town hall meetings and the visible rage of the talking heads. There is a narrative compiling the testimony of environmental scholars and local victims, but not necessarily a story to cling onto for anyone who is not already a believer in their cause. Still, “The Last Mountain” offers an education and if you’re willing to listen, it’s a devastating history.
“The Last Mountain” opens in New York and Washington D.C. on June 3rd before expanding into limited release.