Dan Shafer
MFF Review

“The Last Mountain”

By - Sep 26th, 2011 04:00 am
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2009 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Maria Gunnoe, of Boone County, West Virginia, at a mountaintop removal site.

Bill Haney’s environmental documentary The Last Mountain takes you to Coal River Mountain in West Virginia where mining companies like Massey Energy use the dangerous practice of mountaintop removal mining to reduce mountains to rubble and ash.

The film begins with a display of startling statistics, numerous outraged West Virginia citizens and many unnerving explosions atop the mountains of Appalachia. In some ways, this is par for the course in environmental documentaries centered around the activists championing the cause, but it isn’t until Bobby Kennedy Jr., the film’s primary voice, steps out onto the “reconstructed” mountaintop that the film begins to hit its stride.

There, alongside Jack Spadaro, Former Superintendent of the National Mine Health & Safety Academy, Kennedy picks up a jagged softball-sized rock amidst a field of dying grass and says, “So this is what the state of West Virginia calls a soil substitute? I mean, the extraordinary thing about this is how many lies they have to tell in order to make this whole fiction work. They have to say that this is a forest. The have to say that this is soil. And the amazing thing is how many people believe them.”

The film takes you through the many problems the region has seen; an increase in flooding, water contamination, brain tumors and cancer, to name a few, all of which the filmmakers argue are a direct result of mountaintop removal mining, and all of which are dismissed as flawed science by the coal industry.

Kennedy, along with citizen activists from a variety of organizations, focus the movement against the actions of (now former) Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Blankenship spearheaded the movement to de-unionize the coal mines and expand mountaintop removal mining and made large sums of money in the process.

Blankenship argues global warming is a hoax and that his coal mining practices have nothing to do with any environmental problems in the Coal River Valley region or elsewhere. Unfortunately, the film lacks an essential interview with Blankenship and the view of him is somewhat predictably one-sided, while Kennedy is painted in an almost superhero-like light in his efforts against Blankenship.

The film suffers a bit in being too predictably one-sided, though it’s difficult to not to sympathize with residents of Coal River Valley. Where the film succeeds is how it displays the interconnectedness of everything; from corporate lobbyists and politicians, coal miners and unions, citizens and activists. The film speaks to the larger issue of corporate influence at nearly every level of government and the tragedy that exists beneath it.

“Corporations do not want democracy, they want profits,” says Kennedy. “And the best way for them to get profits too often is to use our campaign finance system – which is just a system of legalized bribery – to get their hooks into a public official; then use that public official to dismantle the marketplace.”

It’s these types of poignant words that ultimately make the film a success. The filmmakers have taken an issue that has gone largely ignored by much of America, and made it into something that demands to be addressed.

The Last Mountain is playing at the Oriental Theatre at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 26, at the Ridge Cinema at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28 and at 2:15 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 2. Be sure to check milwaukee-film.org for the latest showtimes.

Categories: Movies

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