Seeing as how Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain is an activist documentary, it is—by its very nature—vulnerable to the same issues and shortcomings that plague most activist documentaries, namely an inherent “preaching to the choir” tone. That’s no slight against the film’s topic—in this case, the evils of the coal industry—but rather in the narrow scope of interest, which limits its appeal to the average viewer. Unfortunately, no matter how well-made or informative a film like The Last Mountain may be, it’s only really going to be of interest to those already sympathetic to its views.
The film begins by focusing on a small West Virginia community and the mountaintop removal taking place around them by Massey Energy. While the conflict is clearly between the activists and the corporate interests in this one location, it’s also a more general attempt at being a call-to-arms about mountaintop-removal mining. Every nook and cranny of the film is stuffed with some sort of statistical data, to the point it’s almost too much to take in. But again, the point of all this information—and the film’s other references to health and ecological dangers brought on by the coal industry—isn’t necessarily to notify. Since so much of this information isn’t exactly surprising (even to someone like me, who admittedly has just a cursory understanding of the situation), the point is to cram so much of it into 90 minutes that you’re outraged—or at least perturbed—into action.
In this regard, The Last Mountain works, since the topic is worthy. The film begins by examining how coal mining impacts the people living below the mountains being razed for coal, and then expands its scope to examine this form of mining and how it affects everyone else in the country. The introduction section works better than the rest, however, as the film rapidly loses focus once we get beyond the obvious dangers of mountaintop removal. It soon becomes a polemic indictment of the coal industry, then fossil fuel-based energy in general, only to bring in a variety of tangentially related asides on autism, cancer, union-busting, the merits of alternative energy, the efforts of college-age protesters and the occasional foray into the life and times of high-profile activist Bobby Kennedy Jr. It’s all a bit overstuffed.
That said, The Last Mountain is nevertheless a sincere work made by people who honestly care about the subject, and free of the gadflyishness of a Michael Moore film. It has a lot to say, and what it has to say is worth listening to. Rated PG for some thematic material and brief language.