In Bill Haney's thoughtful and elegantly made documentary The Last Mountain, aerial shots of West Virginia's Coal River Valley provide a stunning perspective of mountaintop removal - an efficient and dramatic surface mining technique to extract coal that is deposited in layers.
From up high, you see winding stretches of gorgeous green Appalachian valleys surrounded by mountains with flat, grey tops as barren as the surface of the moon. Down on the ground, however, people are less concerned about landscape aesthetics.
Haney follows a group of local citizens - most of whom grew up in coal-mining families - whose lives and health are being affected by the mining, processing and burning of coal. Tired of feeling helpless against the economic and political clout of "big coal" corporations, they are organizing various grassroots actions to stop mountaintop removal and seeking out greener, more stable job opportunities for their fellow citizens.
Vietnam vet Bo Webb leads the charge to protect Coal River Mountain from being blasted into rubble by proposing a turbine farm along a ridge that experiences high level winds. Maria Gunnoe turned in her waitress's apron to become a full-time activist after her property was regularly ravaged by floods caused by water diversion. And former coal-mining contractor Ed Wiley confronts Democratic governor Joe Manchin (now a senator and self-declared "friend of coal") about moving the Marsh Folk Elementary School away from the enormous sludge reservoir and toxins produced by a nearby coal-processing plant.
Into their midst comes lawyer, environmental activist and author Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who brings star power to their cause but also sticks around and gets his hands dirty. There's a great scene where he sits down with West Virginia Coal Association president Bill Raney at a local diner. The filmmaker allows long portions of their discussion to play out in real time, Raney immediately adopting a dismissive attitude (referring to Kennedy's fancy words).
Haney sprinkles text blasts with coal and energy facts throughout the film, and there's sparse narration and a few experts in the mix, although they all have a direct connection to the region. But for the most part he lets the people and images of Coal River Valley speak for themselves - and that's what gives The Last Mountain its eloquent power.
The Last Mountain opens Friday in Toronto at The Royal, Aug. 19 in Ottawa and Aug. 26 in Saskatoon.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The Last Mountain
- Directed by Bill Haney
- Classification: PG