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Documentary Review: ‘The Last Mountain’

June 29, 2011
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The Last Mountain of the title refers to Coal River Mountain, an area in West Virginia being mined by the Massey Energy company. Massey has a long history of violations, as the villagers below are quick to point out—creating lakes of toxic goo that threaten to pollute the waterways of West Virginia and other states; unsafe mining practices that likely caused brain cancer in several residents, union busting, profiteering, global warming and so on.

Director Bill Haney (The Price of Sugar) provides an informative summary of the dangers of Massey Energy’s practices with first-hand accounts from Coal Mountain locals as well as experts. It’s well-researched and articulate, and yes, it’s a problem. But that’s where The Last Mountain stops being informative and Haney’s contempt for Massey takes over.

It gets points for criticizing democrats and republicans alike, but it ultimately lets politicians like West Virginia governor Joe Manchin and Obama off the hook while taking aim at Massey CEO Don Blankenship. Sure, Blankenship may be a crook, but I doubt the filmmakers believe that the next guy in line will act any differently, so what’s the point in vilifying him? Similarly, Robert Kennedy, Jr. and student protestors may be interesting characters, but they don’t really add anything to the argument (and I wasn’t the only one who laughed when they said the kids remained in the trees for nine full days). Kennedy’s conflation of imminent domain as privatization is inexcusable, especially from someone who should have known better. And I would have found a further discussion of the Coase Theorem (it’s brought up but not mentioned by name) far more engaging than Kennedy’s debate with the Massey spokesman.

Time and again, a relevant discussion of the facts takes a backseat to Haney’s rancor until, ultimately, the film raises more questions than it answers—and I’m not just referring to alterative power sources. Public choice problems (again, not mentioned by name but brought up) deserved much, much more emphasis and won’t go away if we just build windmills. Similarly, “corporate greed” is always a great buzz word, but what does it really mean? Haney attacks the profit motive by stating that in the last 30 years Massey’s increased its production of coal by 140 percent while replacing thousands of workers with machines. Yes, in the short-run that’s bad for the people who lost their jobs, but on the other hand, minimizing costs typically reduces the price of energy to consumers. Efficiency is not the problem, but Haney uses any accusation he can find.

What’s left is a loud and furious hit piece on the coal industry and Massey in particular. And one can’t help but feel that if Haney cared so deeply about his subject, he’d be better off seeking answers instead of patting his comrades in anger on the back.

Rating: 2/5

The Last Mountain is rated PG. Directed by Bill Haney. Written by Bill Haney and Peter Rhodes. Starring Maria Gunnoe, Bo Webb, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Jennifer Hall-Massey, Joe Lovett, Bill Raney, Don Blankenship, Ed Wiley, Lorelei Scarbro, David Aaron Smith, and Susan Bird.

 

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