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Review: ‘From the Ashes’ looks beyond the charged debate on coal and into the lives of working people

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The Colstrip Power Plant in Colstrip, Mont., is shown in a scene from the documentary “From the Ashes.”
(National Geographic)

As indicated by the phrase “war on coal,” frequently deployed in the political arena, coal has become a charged emblem of the American political divide. On one side, a vision of the glory days of a thriving industry and jobs; on the other, a rising awareness of the environmental fallout from the most polluting form of energy on Earth.

Documentarian Michael Bonfiglio doesn’t suggest there are easy solutions, but with “From the Ashes,” he explores alternative-energy options that are already producing results and especially promising training programs for former coal workers. The latter initiatives, he points out, would lose their federal funding in the current administration’s proposed budget.

Crucially, Bonfiglio listens to some of the working people — outraged, mournful and resilient — whose lives have been affected by coal. They include West Virginia miners left high and dry by their bankrupt employers in what were essentially company towns and Dallas residents struggling with pollution-related asthma. He finds strange bedfellows: miners aligned with management against federal regulators, and the “cowboys and Indians,” as one pleased Montana rancher puts it, who joined forces to defeat a proposal for what would have been the nation’s largest coal mine.

There’s nothing particularly cinematic about the well-crafted film, but it’s a compelling piece of advocacy journalism, one that looks beyond the sloganeering on all sides of the debate.

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‘From the Ashes’

Rating: PG, for thematic elements and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

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Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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