Will 'The Last Mountain' Stop Coal Mining?

The documentary starring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. targets mountaintop destruction, but the greater enemy is American apathy

TLM_Maria Gunnoe at MTR Site_by Vivian StockmanEPSN0081.jpg
As I type this, it's been little more than a half-hour since I saw The Last Mountain, the environmental documentary that opens today. The horrors of mountaintop-removal mining are fresh in my mind; I've seen how coal companies routinely shatter Appalachian mountains, poison water supplies and dirty the air. I've seen how families are affected by this. And I know that in all likelihood, the electricity running through my house comes from the techniques depicted in the movies.

Still, there's a charger plugged into the wall in the room over, needlessly sucking energy. I should go and unplug it. But, well, I'm already sitting down.

This will always be the question of films that double as activism: Do they translate outrage into action?

The Last Mountain examines how companies systematically detonate and level the tops of mountains to get at the coal inside. Old mining techniques had their own sets of issues, but they at least left the surfaces of mountains alone. New methods leave behind barren, pockmarked moonscapes.

The documentary moves through a standard three-act story: the problem, the conflict, and the resolution. In this case, the problem and conflict come from the efforts of activists--including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.--to protect Coal River Mountain from destruction. Through sustainable energy, the movie argues with graphs and statistics, we can all move away from coal and the harmful techniques that come with it.

By arguing about the promise of green power, the movie avoids the feeling of grim inevitability that can: Instead of being lopped off for a mine, Coal River Mountain itself could become a wind farm.

But the film is at its best when showing the human impact of mountaintop mining: the man whose granddaughter ails from the air of a coal processing plant, or the woman whose small town population has been decimated by brain tumors some attribute to coal. Kennedy, speaking with The Atlantic, says that the movie is meant to make viewers understand the economic, environmental and moral costs wrapped up in coal.

"The idea that coal is cheap is an illusion," he says. "It's the most catastrophically expensive way to boil a pot of water ever devised."

This idea isn't new; environmentalists have raised cry about coal's downside for years. But change has been slow, to say the least. Kennedy blames the power of the energy companies and our politicians' fecklessness.

"The inertia comes from the power of an industry that can insulate itself from logic," he says. "You ask the question, how do we transition, how do we do what's right--the real question is how do we make our democracy work?"

The industry line has always been that the American desire for cheap energy can only ever be sated by coal. The film tries to push back against that notion by focusing on the subsidies that the industry receives, and by painting sustainable alternatives as both morally superior and practically preferable as well.

But the film's presentation of alternatives like wind belies some of the greatest challenges environmentalists face. If these answers are so logical, why can't we get around to putting them into action? There is a tremendous amount of inertia behind coal, not just from the industry itself but also from the public at large. Change on the sort of the scale required to stop mountaintop removal requires expending a tremendous amount of mental energy--from a country more than happy to think about other things. Director Bill Haney hopes that the film can play a role in moving the issue to the front of peoples' minds.

"It's the role of the activist to take a stand and risk their freedom, and it's the role of people like us to try and share that with the greater public," he says. "If either group falls out we become a fascistic state."

The challenge for the The Last Mountain will be accessing that "greater public" that Haney refers to. The film premiered at Sundance, not exactly a blue-collar destination. It likely won't prove much competition for The Hangover Part II, even a few weeks into its run. Environmentalism is inevitably tied to class in America, which is a fact that the director hopes to dispel by focusing most of his attention on working-class West Virginians and painting the coal company execs as fat-cats. But the ultimate focus on Kennedy, a man whose family is a stand-in for northeastern privilege, may undercut that message.

The Last Mountain lacks the sort of playfulness that propelled documentaries like Super Size Me or most of Michael Moore's films to mainstream success. It's a well-told story, but its conclusion is unwritten. It succeeds in producing that raised eyebrow and sense of guilt about the power coursing into the TV, but it's hard to tell if it will do much more. The real test of its quality won't be told in box-office receipts, but on the top of Coal River Mountain.
Uncommon Productions