Among the subjects covered in Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s overloaded compendium of “relevant” topics crudely tailored to the demands of a novel, is the practice of mountaintop removal, a highly destructive process by which Appalachian peaks are dynamited until the underlying coal can be extracted. With Franzen’s book serving as a bellwether of our times, or at least a guide to what savvy citizens are talking about, could it be long before an agitprop documentary followed?
This somewhat flippant question is not to downplay the dangers of mountaintop removal, which as outlined in Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain are considerable, but to note the way in which certain issues of dire consequence become the cause du jour while others barely crack the collective American consciousness. It’s also to note the prevalence of alarmist documentaries outlining one or another danger threatening our world, relying more on outrage than aesthetics to push across their messages.
In truth, Bill Haney’s film is nearly a model bit of agitprop, which is to say it gets the job done: It spells out the threat, effectively induces outrage, and proposes solutions. Filmed in the heart of coal-mining country in West Virginia, The Last Mountain dwells among the locals forced to suffer epidemics of cancer, asthma, flooding, and toxic water as a result of the blasting of the peaks that overlook many of their towns. An activist-minded doc, Haney’s film deals in depth with the efforts of both locals and outsiders (among them celebrity ringer Bobby Kennedy Jr.) to protest the destructive practices of companies like Massey Energy. These scenes of activism-in-action produce some of the film’s signature moments—protestors being dragged from the capital building in Charleston after demanding the relocation of a school situated on the edge of a coal impoundment, miners facing down activists outside the Department of Environmental Protection.
This last mentioned showdown points to one of the film’s chief strengths: its exposure of the false dichotomy between labor and environmentalism. As The Last Mountain makes clear, as the coal industry transforms itself, it has less need of manpower, so companies like Massey actually cut far more jobs than they create—and, unlike in the past, they rely strictly on non-union labor. By contrast, industries responsible for the creation of clean energy, such as the manufacture of wind turbines, promote new areas of employment, and, minus the tax loopholes granted coal companies, generate far more revenue for the surrounding communities
Outlining its case and looking toward the future, The Last Mountain fulfills its mandate, even if it indulges in a bit too much RFK Jr. veneration along the way. (Although the ex-first nephew’s talking down of coal lobbyist Bill Raney is unquestionably among the film’s highlights.) Haney’s movie is not great cinema, nor was meant to be, but as an introduction to one of the myriad dangers threatening our earth, it serves its cause well enough. And that, after all, is the whole point.