There are any number of problems with issue-based documentaries. I realize that every filmmaker has his or her own angle, but as a journalist, I like being presented with all sides of the story and being left to make my own decision.
However, some issues are so egregious, and some filmmakers' outrage so strong, that a completely one-sided, biased film that makes no pretense at objectivity seems like the only option. The coal industry practice of mountaintop removal mining—in which the top of a mountain is literally removed, via explosives, to get at the coal underneath—would seem to be such a topic. Study after study keeps showing the practice poses grave public health hazards and serious, permanent environmental damage.
Alas, the lopsided documentary Bill Haney has made, The Last Mountain, fails to drum up enough outrage to make up for its obvious bias and lack of entertainment. It may be well-meaning, but—dare I say it—it needs more perspective from the side of the coal industry.
The Last Mountain ostensibly tells the story of a community in West Virginia battling to keep Massey Energy from mining coal on the one last pristine mountaintop in their neck of the woods. (Yes, that Massey Energy, of the mine disaster and questionable safety practices.) I say ostensibly, because if there is one thing the documentary doesn't do, it is follow a narrative, which is really a shame—what could be a better story than the people in the "holler" battling the "evil" CEO of Massey, Don Blankenship?
Yet, while the movie occasionally sets up this David versus Goliath narrative, it keeps returning over and over to a different theme—that of how wonderful Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is.
But wait, you are now probably thinking to yourself, what on earth does a Kennedy have to do with Appalachian coal miners? Unfortunately, despite having watched the movie, I can't really tell you.
Kennedy is an environmental lawyer in New York who also does work for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped back this documentary, but none of that explains why he's in the movie more than any of the community activists fighting to save their homes and health. It's great that Kennedy has gotten involved in the battle against mountaintop removal and has brought national prominence to the issue, but I don't really care about how he became environmentally aware as a child when the government built a highway through his family's farm in Virginia. And some of the scenes in which Kennedy interacts with the natives are simply cringe-inducing, as when he argues with a coal miner about clean-energy jobs.
That's the main problem with The Last Mountain—it paints the issue in such black-and-white terms that it doesn't do justice to it. According to a statistic flaunted early on in the film, 50 percent of the nation's electricity is powered by coal. The movie suggests wind power is the answer to everything—clean energy, instead of dirty coal, which would also provide jobs for out-of-work miners—but as anyone who's spent more than a cursory amount of time studying this stuff knows, it's not that simple. Not every mountain is suitable for a wind farm. Not every coal miner is going to get a new job making wind turbines.
The coal industry has dirty practices, and MTR is one of them. But villainous or not, the industry is currently still an essential part of this country's electrical backbone and economy, and it would have been nice to see that complexity addressed more in the movie. Instead, we get Kennedy taking a trip to Rhode Island—yes, Rhode Island!—where a private Catholic boarding school has had great success using a wind turbine to provide most of its power. The fact that Haney thinks this is at all relevant to the situation in West Virginia should tell you all you need to know about the movie.
The Last Mountain is showing at Downtown West for one week only, and I suppose if you don't know anything at all about MTR, it might be worth your time—the shots of the explosions are breathtaking, and the few sections that do concentrate on the West Virginia residents are informative, if not as powerful as they should be. And, in any case, at least the theatre will be air-conditioned.