Note: The following review refers to the DVD version offered through the Ironweed Film Club (ironweedfilms.com) and not the version available through retail outlets such as Amazon.
In the ever-growing field of eco-conscious documentaries, earnestness appears to be what fake entrails are to slasher flicks or explosions to Michael Bay movies. Earnestness is the life-blood, but too much of it can be self-defeating. However well-intentioned they might be, such docus too often confuse artistry with no-frills, straightforward sincerity. Burning the Future: Coal in America is better than many of its ilk, not as good as others. It spotlights an apparent environmental evil, the practice of mountaintop removal mining, but the film's nobility of purpose can be a bit grating.
The impact of mountaintop coal extraction is certainly a story worth telling. Director David Novack takes viewers to the Appalachians of West Virginia, where the coal mining industry is steadily devastating more than 1.4 million acres of mountains, forests and rivers, transforming its scenic beauty into an eco-nightmare of toxic groundwater and barren lands. While West Virginia's coal companies and politicians insist the extraction process is as safe as it is efficient, Novack examines the misery it has caused for area folks, most of whom are poor and powerless.
Burning the Future incorporates a host of interviews, but its chief focus is mom-turned-activist Maria Gunnoe. Like many West Virginians, she hails from a family with a long and storied tradition in coal mining, but she felt compelled to challenge the coal companies after her kids began to fear the periodic flooding she attributes to mountaintop extraction. "Common sense tells me when you turn a mountaintop into a barren wasteland," she tells the off-camera interviewer, "there's something that's gonna happen at the bottom of that mountain."
Novack, who also co-wrote the film with Richard Hankin, posits that something includes rivers filled with slurry and tumor-inducing tap water. He makes a reasonable case connecting the dots, albeit one that allows only token rebuttals from coal companies' spokesmen. The filmmakers don't pretend to be on the ideological sideline. Burning the Future pokes at what it terms the misnomer of "clean coal" technology, scoffs at the federal government's lax regulatory efforts and wrings irony out of over-the-top coal industry TV commercials, including one that seems to reimagine coal miners as Maxim-worthy hotties. Less effective is a misguided animated sequence that lampoons the many ways that Americans gobble up electricity.
Burning the Future does a solid, if uninspired, job casting light on the consequences of mountaintop coal removal. Important message, somewhat drab narrative. Novack offers some gripping stories and intriguing personalities -- particularly Gunnoe -- but he spreads himself too thin, diluting the power of his own agitprop. Ultimately, you suspect that Burning the Future is preaching to the already converted. Is that a waste of energy?
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen anamorphic, the picture is crisp and clear, with nicely saturated colors and vivid detail.
The 2.0 audio mix is clean and clear, with no discernible problems of drop-out or distortion. For a talking head-heavy documentary, that's really about all you can ask for, or need.
The disc includes two other environment-minded documentaries. Fighting Goliath: Texas Coal Wars (33:45) chronicles how a coalition of Texas municipal officials and activists in 2006 successfully opposed plans for 19 coal-fired power plants. Narrated by Robert Redford, the filmmaking is taut, punchy and effective.
Power Shift Energy + Sustainability (26:30) is more expansive in scope, if less successful. Slickly produced and narrated by Cameron Diaz (!), it provides an overview of the more promising sustainable and renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and geothermal power. Did you know Cameron Diaz drives a hybrid? It's true. She says so.
Also included are liner notes of an interview with filmmaker Novack.
Despite its title, Burning the Future: Coal in America is not so much an indictment of coal-mining as it is of a specific practice, mountaintop coal extraction. Documentarian David Novack's no-frills approach gets the job done, but can be a bit meandering and lackluster. Coupled with two bonus documentaries, however, the DVD is worthwhile viewing for anyone with an interest in good stewardship of the planet - which, hopefully, means everyone.