Art-house theaters are littered with the remains of documentaries with good intentions. In the past decade alone we've seen more than our share of movies about troubled third-world countries, Scandinavian sheep herders, and small communities fighting the good fight against corporate greed. The Last Mountain is a documentary with good intentions, a small community, and some very real people at the center of its struggle.
And like so many other good-intentioned docs, The Last Mountain begins with a parade of facts marching across the screen: Half of the U.S.' electricity comes from burning coal, one-third of the coal comes from the Appalachian mountains, etc. These stats are immediately shattered off the screen by footage of ancient mountains being blown to hell and protesting locals getting dragged away by cops.
For years Massey Energy — the same industry giant involved in last year's coal mining disaster — has been blasting off tops of West Virginia mountains to get to the precious commodity buried beneath them. Entire mountain ranges have been wiped out. As we're told early on, "Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed approximately 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated one million acres of forest, buried 2,000 miles of streams, and is contaminating thousands of miles more." These are some sobering facts.
It's hard not to take up sides with the citizens of Coal River Valley, especially when one complains about the explosions that rock her house three times a day: "It feels like you're under attack," she says. Director Bill Haney focuses his camera on the gorgeous green forests, many of which have been blasted to rubble and caused a shitload of problems for the people who live there: deadly floods, polluted streams, birth defects, and giant boulders resting in backyards are just some of the side effects of the blasting.
Scientists, professors, residents, environmentalists, and even Robert Kennedy Jr. chime in on the subject, and all agree that Massey head Don Blankenship is one of the biggest dicks on the planet. Which, of course, is the way The Last Mountain spins things. Indeed, the ravaged forests and dirty streams make for inarguable images in support of the cause.
But the film slips into a renewable-energy PSA near the end, and too much time is spent with activist Kennedy. I'd rather have seen more of the local protestor who looks like Toby Keith. And the movie loses some steam once the professional environmentalists are introduced. The citizens fighting for their lives are way more interesting than the bearded do-gooders.
There's no doubt about it: The coal companies suck. Still, it would be nice to get a little more perspective from the other side, besides a few people arguing over job numbers. But that's how documentaries like this work. It's one-sided, but at least it's on the right side.