Robert F. Kennedy Jr. fights to save "The Last Mountain"

In an inspiring (and depressing) documentary, the crusading eco-lawyer takes on Big Coal in its backyard

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 5, 2011 3:55AM (EDT)

Brother Joseph Byron and Robert F Kennedy, Jr. in "The Last Mountain"
Brother Joseph Byron and Robert F Kennedy, Jr. in "The Last Mountain"

Before we get to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and coal mining in West Virginia and the documentary "The Last Mountain," let me take a minute to congratulate my generation for having been sanctimonious about the environment for 20 years or so while allowing the whole situation to get a lot worse all across the board. Great work, everybody! Let's give ourselves a hand.

OK, that's an obnoxious way to frame it, it's a lot more complicated than that, etc. Some people, including Bobby Kennedy Jr., the crusading environmental lawyer with the famous name, have been plugging away at these issues without stopping. We've got one major political party whose official position is that science does not exist and that humans were teleported from the moon by the great Sky Demon in the year 4004 B.C. -- and while we were dazzled by their apparent idiocy they rewrote the Constitution such that corporations are not just people but gods, and the rest of us are their slaves. I'm pretty much not kidding about that part. One of the effects of director Bill Haney's "The Last Mountain," a skillful and highly compelling enviro-documentary of the kind that's meant first to outrage and then to energize you around a particular crisis, is that it makes clear how devastating the medium-term results of the Bush-Cheney regime have been -- and that, far from being zealots or nincompoops, those people understood exactly what they were doing.

"The Last Mountain" is mostly about the carnage and destruction inflicted on rural Appalachia -- West Virginia, but also neighboring states like Ohio and Kentucky -- by the relatively recent coal-mining method known as "mountaintop removal," which for once is not a euphemism. Within that, it's about the Coal River Valley, a formerly bucolic, mineral-rich region in south central West Virginia where Massey Energy and other companies have already blasted several mountains to rubble, in order to fuel coal-fired electrical plants across the country. Water quality, air quality and overall quality of life in the Coal River Valley have already been destroyed (by some estimates, the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb is deployed in the region every week) but one last mountain still stands in near-pristine condition, and Kennedy and other activists have seized on it as a tangible symbol.

Of course it's more than a symbol to people like Maria Gunnoe, a Boone County, W. Va., native who won the 2009 Goldman Prize for leading the fight against mountaintop-removal in the Appalachians, and who lives in a homestead just below the endangered Coal River Mountain. But even with an environmental superstar like Kennedy on their side -- is it OK for me to say that he's a gravel-voiced and altogether peculiar screen presence, both inspiring and a little off-putting? -- Gunnoe and her friends are facing a political system dominated by "legalized bribery" (Kennedy's description of campaign finance) and regulatory agencies that over the past 30 years have alternately been stripped to the bone or turned into shameless toadies of the industries they're supposed to police.

I assume that "The Last Mountain" is not meant to depress the crap out of us by demonstrating that such abstractions as ordinary citizens and the law and our responsibility to future generations mean absolutely nothing when there's a buck to be made in destroying the wilderness for some cheap coal. Certainly the film's portrait of embattled rural residents banding together to fight against the thoroughly poisonous coal empire is inspiring, and it's high time the rest of us joined them. Coal is pretty much the fast food of energy solutions -- by far the cheapest in the short run, and the most toxic and destructive over time. I left the movie convinced that we have to break our addiction to coal-generated electricity before it's too late, but not at all convinced that our soul-gnawed, endlessly distracted nation possesses the strength of character or political will to do so.

"The Last Mountain" is now playing at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the E Street Cinema in Washington. It opens June 9 in Nashville; June 15 in Los Angeles; June 17 in Philadelphia and San Francisco; June 24 in Boston and Chicago; July 8 in Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., Seattle and Austin, Texas; and July 22 in Charlotte, N.C., Knoxville, Tenn., Pittsburgh and Toronto, with more cities to be announced.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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