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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 15, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 28
Energy future in limbo in The Last Mountain
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Energy future in limbo in The Last Mountain

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

The Last Mountain
Opening July 15


Deep in the heart of West Virginia sits Coal River Valley. Once upon a time, the Appalachian Mountains loomed over the top of this community, looking down on it like Greek gods surveying their domain. But now, with the advent of mountaintop removal and the easing of restrictions against it during George W. Bush's administration, most of this range has been decimated, and a single mountain is all that remains of this once-pristine wilderness.

The documentary The Last Mountain examines the battle going on inside Coal River Valley, asking questions about the continued viability of coal mining, the political influence massive corporations like Massey Energy have both on local and national levels, the health risks associated with mountaintop removal, alternate sources of energy production, and the economic effects upon communities if coal production is slowed or stymied. While its point of view and opinions on the subject are not in question, director Bill Haney and his fellow filmmakers still allow industry spokesmen like West Virginia Coal Association president Bill Raney to make their case for continued production. Not so much even-handed as open-minded, this forceful and impacting documentary is as much an indictment of how energy is produced in the United States as Inside Job was of Wall Street.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., author of 2004's Crimes Against Nature, acts as our eyes and ears for this journey. He travels into the heart of West Virginia as well as to hot spots of alternate green energy production and does his best to examine them intimately. He meets with Coal River Valley residents impacted the most by the devastation caused by mountaintop removal, listening to their stories and assisting as they try to get politicians, corporate leaders, and others to hear their insistent cries for change.

Still, it isn't like this movie is a Frontline or 60 Minutes piece of journalism, doing its best to stay out of the way and allow viewers to make up their minds as to the plusses and minuses of what is being presented. Haney and company are definitely making a proactive piece showcasing the ills of coal mining and production, and doing their best to show how wind power and other forms of green energy production can create jobs and help economies.

My earlier mention of Inside Job was not out of left field. Like that film, this one is also an opinionated piece trying to hammer its points home, but it's not like the facts it presents are in question. You believe the information imparted, the science, and the realities for these communities combining in a way that is heartfelt, moving, and, most importantly, infuriating. Watching the Appalachians disappear and listening to Bill Raney say that it's OK boggled my mind and had me silently fuming, and I can't see how anyone watching this film won't come away wondering how in the world we allow stuff like this to go on.

The sad part about all of this is that many have already made up their minds and will refuse to allow them to be changed, no matter what information is thrown their way. You can tell people about the millions their community could be making from wind turbines, yet they'll frustratingly still believe the paltry thousands they receive from the likes of Massey Energy are more important and produce more jobs. You can tell people how the coal industry has shed 40,000 positions and doubled their profits, but they'll still believe the opposite. Facts no longer seem to matter, and fiction becomes truth in a way that's remarkable and disturbing.

Films like The Last Mountain serve a greater purpose as they try to turn a tide that has only seemed to build into a titanic wall over the past decade or so. It shows how David can still face down Goliath and come away, if not victorious, at least having made significant changes to the field of play. This is a movie people like me need to extol the virtues of, and which those in the target areas need to see for themselves. Change doesn't happen overnight, but at least Haney has helped add to a conversation that hopefully will continue to build until the powers that be have to stop feigning cluelessness and begin to engage in the debate.

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