'From the Ashes,' 'Nobody Speak' mine politics of coal, free press

Coal CEO sues John Oliver
Coal CEO sues John Oliver

Two topics very much in the headlines are the subject of documentaries this weekend, offering deep dives into sources of conflict in Donald Trump's presidency. "From the Ashes" examines political efforts to sustain (or revive) the coal industry, while "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" delves into journalism besieged by wealthy interests, as filtered largely through Hulk Hogan's site-killing lawsuit against Gawker Media.

Airing on National Geographic Channel, "From the Ashes" documents the complicated politics surrounding coal, including the Trump administration's pledge to bring back coal jobs and its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Environmental critics speak of coal as a "19th-century form of energy" that is going to leave the world with "a whopping climate problem," as climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer notes, if we keep relying upon it.

Director Michael Bonfiglio details the fear and desperation of miners in West Virginia, who have lost jobs to automation and found themselves forced into an odd alliance with management that has exhibited scant concern about their health and well-being through the decades. The film puts human faces on here-and-now environmental problems associated with coal, from water that's not potable to higher rates of children with asthma in places where coal burning pollutes the air.

Experts also poke holes in the fallacy of "clean coal" -- a long-discussed potential savior that, they note, "makes no economic sense" given its cost.

If "From the Ashes" is both timely and squarely focused on the challenges at hand, "Nobody Speak" is equally pertinent but proves a tad scattered.

The main thrust of director Brian Knappenberger's film, which will play on Netflix, is Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, an action financed by billionaire Peter Thiel as part of what amounted to a personal vendetta.

Even those who followed the sex-tape case will probably encounter snippets they missed, like Hogan's surreal testimony in which he discusses himself in the third person, separating the "Hulk" character -- and specifically, his genitalia -- from Terry Bollea, his real-life alter ego.

Thiel's involvement, and a legal strategy seemingly designed to sacrifice settlement money in exchange for striking a fatal blow against Gawker, should be chilling to those who value the First Amendment, even if they found Gawker distasteful. (Gawker founder Nick Denton and editor A.J. Daulerio were, as the documentary reminds us, terrible witnesses on its behalf.)

Where "Nobody Speak" begins to feel strained is in its effort to broaden this portrait of the First Amendment under assault by connecting Thiel's campaign with other billionaires -- namely, President Donald Trump and conservative financier and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, recounting the former's relentless criticism of media and the latter's shadowy acquisition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Roughly the last third of the film, in fact, covers the heroic stand that the Review-Journal's staff took against its strange new owner, beginning with its effort to unmask him.

While the underlying argument about the press being under siege certainly holds -- and coal magnate Bob Murray's lawsuit against John Oliver's HBO show provides a sort-of exclamation point from current headlines -- each of these strands represents a somewhat different threat. In weaving them together, "Nobody Speak" begins to feel a trifle heavy-handed by the end, starting with the swelling music as interview subjects discuss journalism's higher calling.

Both films, however, are well worth. Although "From the Ashes" and "Nobody Speak" address separate issues, they zero in on and frame subjects brought into stark focus by Trump's election. And if one deals with fouling the air and the other with seeking to ventilate the truth, that, in a way, has a certain symmetry to it.

"From the Ashes" premieres June 25 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.

"Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" premieres June 23 on Netflix.

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