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Documentary Film Review – Bill Haney’s ‘The Last Mountain’


Bill Haney‘s new documentary, The Last Mountain (2011), illustrates  the real cost for those who live in and around coal mining operations in the Appalachia Mountains… and so what?

As a writer from the West Coast this subject didn’t really seem that interesting when I first read about it, and from my opening sentence it might not sound that interesting to you either. Living in the Pacific Northwest, and far from any active coal mining, I just didn’t initially have any connection with this topic.

As many Washingtonians know, most of our energy comes from electricity generated from dams, nuclear plants, and wind energy. As to my expertise with coal, I’d describe it as being very limited.  As a matter of fact, the sum of my knowledge on the subject comes from watching the Academy Award winning movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter – sad, I know. I’m guilty of not exploring the world (outside of my neck of the woods) more thoroughly, and watching documentaries is a fine way of filling those gaping holes in my repertoire.

I saw this film as a chance for me to learn something, and after reading this article I hope you do too.

The Last Mountain captures the real cost of  energy production vs. the hard working Americans for whom it is a way of life. It’s also a fascinating peek into the political machinations of the coal industry and how powerful the dollar can be in buying a president’s vote, which President Bush and President Obama are both guilty of!

First up is the breathtaking scenery of West Virginia, which includes beautiful mountains and scenic valleys that look a lot like what we have here. The film showcases the people who live in these pristine-looking pockets of America and lets them tell their story about coal.

For many, coal production/mining plays the most vital role in their lives and has done so for multiple generations. But there’s a real negative side that is twisted and manipulated by big coal money and is hidden from America. In an age where we hear and see “Big-Oil’Money” daily in the news, it’s easy to downplay coal and the impact it has on the economy and the people. It’s there, and a driving force not only in a lot of Americans’ lives, but in the economy.

The Last Mountain takes you on a ride into the lifestyle of the folks who live with coal. It gives you the knowledge to imagine what life would be like if the company you work  for (which has been supporting your family for generations) was destroying the actual mountains around your house. Literally, blowing them up and tearing them down cubic foot by cubic foot. Imagine a hill or mountain that you can see from your window. Now imagine it being gone. Where would the animals go? More importantly, where would the water go? What about the debris in the air, etc? The Last Mountain takes you there. You don’t have to imagine it. It’s happening right now on such a grand scale, and being supported by politicians and – inadvertently – tax paying voters. What would you do if you knew the truth? It’s shocking what’s being done to our own environment in our own country.

Adding his name to the situation is Robert Kennedy Jr., who at first struck me as a pseudo-celeb wanting some publicity for a book he was determined to sell. I’m a bit of a cynic as of late when it comes to people being do-gooders. I was wrong of course. The nephew to former President Kennedy apparently has the right stuff, and with his help this travesty is finally touching those who care and can do something about it.

The Last Mountain takes you to the battle and introduces you to the players. The big money behind the dynamite, the machines that do the work of 100 men, and, in the end, the people who pay the price. Many of which are disillusioned, and part of what I found so fascinating about the film.

The film is a real eye-opener on many levels and I found myself unexpectedly fascinated by the subject of coal mining.  The political ramifications of what it represents in this country and the people it affects was just a real blind spot for me, living in the Pacific Northwest. Energy production is such an integral part of existence and taken for granted so easily in this modern age. The lengths that companies like the one featured in this movie go to to make money, and the way the legal system is manipulated by them, is a real travesty.

The film was mostly one-sided, with only a minimum amount included from people supporting coal production (with the exception of the Union Leader, who every time opened his mouth was spouting propaganda). I would have wanted to see more from the people supporting coal production and the process that keeps them so disillusioned on the subject.

The film is directed by Bill Haney, a veteran documentary filmmaker and known for his work on A Life Among Whales and The Price of Sugar (2007). As he really leaves no room for doubt in the end, I walked away grateful for his hard work (and his crew) in delivering such an important story that just wouldn’t have been told without his involvement. To be enlightened on the subject of coal mining, and even more interesting, the companies that profit from it, check this film out.

Director: Bill Haney
Writer: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Cast: Maria Gunnoe, Bill Raney, Bo Webb, Robert Kennedy Jr., Don Blankenship
Rating: Rated PG-13
Running time: 95 minutes
Seattle Release Date: July 15, 2011 at The Varsity. Playing Limited in other major cities. Click here for theaters and dates  The Last Mountain.