SUNDANCE REVIEW: The Last Mountain

Delivers a powerful environmental punch.

PARK CITY — (U.S. Documentary Competition) In the tradition of great advocacy documentaries, "The Last Mountain" makes a powerful case against the coal mining industry in West Virginia. Films like this are largely preaching to the choir -- opponents are unlikely to go near it. But its importance cannot be underestimated.

As a call to arms for sympathetic viewers, the film is informative, stirring, and most importantly, inspiring, and should resonate for a likeminded audience.

This is a documentary with a point of view and director Bill Haney makes no bones about trying to be fair and balanced. The visuals and facts speak eloquently for themselves. In the valleys of Appalachia, big coal companies like Massey Energy are blowing the tops off mountains to enhance profits, leaving the once lush forests looking like a lunar landscape. In this unfortunate region, Coal Mountain is the last mountain.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. serves as kind of an environmental host as he gets involved in the case to save Coal Mountain and goes around meeting local activists and confronts the president of the West Virginia Coal Association. It is encouraging to witness the commitment of ordinary West Virginians like Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb who have seen too much to stand by any longer.

Mountaintop removal has destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams. Flashing the figures on the screen in bold graphics is a bit distracting, but there is no denying their impact. Haney and his team have rounded up an impressive collection of academics, writers, and organizers from around the country, but it is the locals who tell the story most powerfully.

The flattening of mountains is not just an aesthetic disaster; it destroys the area’s eco-system, pollutes the water, spreads toxic silicon dust, and adversely affects the health of children. In one heartbreaking scene, a resident walks around and points out the homes of six of her neighbors who died of brain tumors. Equally moving is the story of Ed Wiley, a former Massey contractor who turned activist when he saw the damage being done to his granddaughter. Together they make a trip to plead with Democratic Governor Joe Manchin, who is proud to be a “friend of coal.”

As the film demonstrates, the fight against big coal is not a popular struggle in West Virginia and often pits neighbors against neighbors. Almost everyone here has ties to the mining industry, and for many it’s inconceivable to bite the hand that feeds them. Which makes the struggle of these rag tag crusaders even more heroic.

The film is strongest when it stays local, and side trips to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island seem like unnecessary digressions. But as Haney and his co-writer (and editor) Peter Rhodes point out, coal accounts for half of the electricity produced in the U.S. and it is a national environmental issue. The Last Mountain admirably presents the truth for anyone who wants to see it.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary competition (DADA Films)
Uncommon Productions
Director: Bill Haney
Screenwriter: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Producer: Clara Bingham, Eric Grunebaum, Bill Haney
Executive producer: Tim Disney, Tim Rockwood
Director of photography: Jerry Risius, Stephen McCarthy, Tim Hotchner
Music: Claudio Ragazzi
Editor: Peter Rhodes
No rating, 94 minutes