There are at least three potentially good movies in The Last Mountain, Bill Haney’s documentary about environmentalists’ fight against mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia: the story of how Don Blankenship became a twenty-first century Gilded Age baron, and how coal companies built a business model that included paying fines rather than avoiding violations; a look at what it means for people in Appalachia to demand accountability from the West Virginia government; and a history of the Kennedys and the environmental movement. But The Last Mountain is just one movie, and while it does a valuable service in laying out some of the environmental impacts of the coal industry and spotlighting the work of Appalachian activists, it never quite knits those stories together, leaving them competing with each other for time.
It’s incredibly striking to see what the mountaintop removal process actually looks like. “If you blew up one mountain in the Berkshires, you wouldn’t be put in jail,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who stars in the movie along with local activists, told me. “You’d be put in an asylum for the criminally insane.” After seeing the explosions and the scale of the projects, it’s hard not to agree with him. It’s a reminder of how isolated the Appalachians are that tearing down mountains and rebuilding them can be a regular business procedure rather than a major news story or public spectacle, and the explanation of the actual mining process is one of the most effective parts of the movie.
Convincing audiences, especially the ones who are already sufficiently interested in environmental issues to buy a ticket to a documentary about coal mining, that you can’t actually tear down mountains and put them back together again isn’t a hard sell. The more complicated story is how the industry evolved to this point, and it takes The Last Mountain 41 minutes to really introduce Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, and his company to viewers. Rolling Stone’s provocative profile of Blankenship last year does a better job than The Last Mountain of laying out a central question: how did Blankenship decide to exploit the land he grew up on to the point of destruction? Now that he’s left the company, his motivations aren’t really the point any more, but Blankenship still could have been the linchpin of a strong regulatory heist story, one that gets told only in fits and starts in The Last Mountain. A system of low federal fines and lax enforcement of mining violations didn’t just emerge out of the ether, and it would be worth laying blame on everyone who participated in establishing and holding together that regime, even as it continues to contribute to miners’ deaths.
The whole movie is characterized by those fits and starts. Sure, there’s something endearing about seeing a young RFK, Jr. visiting his famous uncle in the Oval Office and presenting him with a salamander in a glass jar. And it’s true that JFK’s visit to West Virginia coal miners played an important role in his fight for the Democratic nomination, that Robert Kennedy visited the state as part of his investigations into hunger in America, and that his son has done substantial environmental work there. But the movie’s interpolations of Kennedy family history feel like an effort to justify Kennedy’s presence in the film, bolstering him against charges like those flung at him by miners that “Y’all’s not from here. It’s our state. It’s our jobs.” And the divergences into Kennedy homage are distracting and sometimes awkward, whether Kennedy does a house visit only to have his host exclaim ““I never thought I’d have a Kennedy in my home,” or when an activist tells the audience “Nobody expected Bobby Kennedy to come, and he keeps coming back, not for himself.”
There’s a good movie to be made about how the Kennedy legacy plays out on environmental and rural issues, something Kennedy clearly feels strongly about. “I think it’s important in West Virginia especially, because there’s such a high percentage of houses where I walk in and see pictures of my father and uncle on the living room wall,” he told me. “I feel I have a responsibility to try to do my best to do something good.” That quest for goodness just feels shoehorned in to The Last Mountain, especially when it’s juxtaposed against scenes like the one where Ed Wiley, a former Massey contractor, confront former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin in his office. Wiley’s granddaughter had been going to school on mine-polluted grounds, and Wiley tells Manchin that he can’t treat the little girl, clutching a piggy bank of coins she’s saving towards a new school, like an abstraction. The stiff conversation between the man in shorts and a much-washed white t-shirt and the man in a crisp suit says everything about the government’s responsiveness to its constituents that needs saying.