Review: ‘From the Ashes’ Sees Coal’s Dark Present and Dim Future


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A coal-burning power plant in Montana, as seen in “From the Ashes.”

Credit
National Geographic Films

The most telling words in “From the Ashes” aren’t spoken by experts (of which there are plenty) but by former coal miners, their worrying spouses and the parents of sick children who have been affected by the industry. It’s one thing to hear about regulations and pollution levels and safety standards. It’s another to listen to a laid-off father wonder how he’ll face his family, or watch a mother distraught over her asthmatic son.

This documentary starts with a rundown of coal’s part in American history, then moves on to a survey of current global economic and climate conditions. As for the future, we’re told coal use will continue to decline, no matter what politicians and companies claim. The remaining mining jobs are dangerous and dirty, yet many workers fight for them and on behalf of the industry. When you’re unemployed and have to choose between going hungry or taking work that contributes to global warming, well, you have no real choice.

Michael Bonfiglio, the film’s director, provides a concise overview of the issues. While he’s dedicated to giving a cleareyed look, an angry scowl would sometimes serve better — no business executives are chased down and held to task here, and politicians are blamed but only a few are named.

To be sure, “From the Ashes” doesn’t need much commentary from Washington or from corporate spokesmen as it interviews people in Appalachia or Wyoming whose land, air and water may have been spoiled by coal mining. Their dismay is real enough, and their sorrows say far more than statistics.

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