Is there anything more disheartening than a lousy documentary pushing a good cause? Unless you’re one of the 30,000 West Virginians who depends on the coal-mining industry for his livelihood—or the handful of executives whose job it is to lay off as many of those workers as they can, and remove the labor unions and regulations that might protect them—it’s hard to argue the contention posed in Bill Haney’s documentary The Last Mountain: that coal mining is an ecological and humanitarian disaster. That’s especially true of the kind practiced in Appalachia, where companies like Massey Energy essentially reduce mountains to rubble, then sift out the black bits.
Unfortunately, the same could be said for Haney’s approach to filmmaking. Although it zooms in on a handful of locals to gin up the pathos, the film’s real hero is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—son of Bobby, nephew of Jack—a crusading environmentalist, lawyer, and advocacy journalist who lacks a politician’s instinct for forging instant relationships (or at least a facsimile thereof) with the people he’s attempting to help. At one point during a staged conversation in a down-home diner with the West Virginia Coal Association’s Bill Raney, Kennedy opines that “any 3-year-old” could tell that the mining industry’s practice of replacing the native hills with piles of manmade rubble is a poor substitute—then singles out a young boy dining with his father at the nearby counter. Mercifully, Kennedy doesn’t call the tot over to test out his theory, but it isn’t the only time it feels like he’s using the natives as props. (The movie also mocks Massey CEO Don Blankenship for flouting the scientific consensus on global warming, but neglects to mention that Kennedy’s other causes include a crusade against childhood vaccination.)
The Last Mountain effectively documents the horror show that is mountaintop-removal mining and the political maneuvering—much of it furthered by the Bush administration’s gutting of environmental legislation—that enables quick fixes while concealing the true cost of dirty energy. But there’s something grating about the way The Last Mountain keeps returning to picket-line confrontations between environmental activists, some of whom come from out of state, and the miners who want to know who they’ll work for if the mines shut down. The wind turbine Kennedy visits in Rhode Island is a nice visual aid, but it doesn’t address the entrenched culture of the region, or the seismic change needed to transform its economy. There are still many mountains left to be moved.