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.