"The Last Mountain" is a damning look at Big Coal and its landscape-decimating practices, a litany of disheartening statistics and enraging testimony. But director Bill Haney leavens the lament with a moving portrait of the West Virginia residents who are standing up to the bulldozing — physical and spiritual — to save an Appalachian peak from the fate of its neighbors.
Whether the view is aerial or up close and personal, the documentary presents wrenching evidence that mountaintop removal mining is more expedient for the coal companies — key among them the headline-familiar Massey Energy — and disastrous for just about everyone else.
The consequences extend beyond the Coal River Valley communities, which have had to contend with daily explosive blasts, flooding because of depleted topsoil, precariously stored toxic sludge and odds-defying cancer clusters. Appalachia's contaminated streams affect water supplies for millions in the Eastern United States. And with coal-fueled electricity plants across the country, the events in a West Virginia hollow reverberate nationwide.
Among the non-local heroes of the film is Robert Kennedy Jr., who's been taking his environmental cause to the White House since his uncle was chief executive. Kennedy argues that the union-busting coal industry, though it waves the flag and the word "jobs," has impoverished people. He's optimistic enough to believe that Americans would revolt if they knew the truth about its tactics. That might be true if they weren't so exhausted by their own daily struggles.
Yet another dispiriting depiction of corporate clout, "The Last Mountain" offers hope, too, in the form of wind-power success stories and the passion of frontline activists.
'The Last Mountain'
MPAA rating: PG for some thematic material and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing at: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; expands Friday to selected theaters