Daniel Goldhaber delivers a heist movie with an angry and urgent message
Buying a ticket for this movie will probably get you placed on some kind of government watchlist, which might go double for me since I’m about to eagerly insist that you go see it. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, based on the book by Andreas Malm, may not be much of an instruction manual but does serve as an urgent call for radical action. Or, as the film calls it, justified acts of self-defense. It’s hard to argue against the case it makes or be affected by the story it tells.
Sorry to be a total downer, but unless you’re one of those people who’ve been living in a totally separate reality for the past few decades, you likely already know that climate disaster is the number one issue facing our planet. It is very much in the here and now, really helping drive home the feeling that we’re all currently living in a dystopian future more apathetic (and far dumber) than any work of science fiction could’ve come up with. Even if the whole world 100% made the switch to alternative and sustainable energy right at this very moment, the ongoing and increasingly dramatic effects of our fossil fuel dependency is still likely going to make life more and more difficult for decades to come. Yee haw!
So while the story of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is one of fiction, its modern day setting and ensemble of desperate and determined characters easily feel real; their various backgrounds and causes of radicalization have the needed sympathy and immediacy to make for a potent and human-focused eco-thriller that delivers on nearly all fronts. Whether this film inspires a wave of real terrorism in the name of climate justice across the globe remains to be seen, but it does possess a dire sort of power all its own that’s impossible to shake.
Director Daniel Goldhaber (Cam, 50 States of Fright) takes Malm’s original nonfiction book and, along with screenwriters Ariela Barer & Jordan Sjol, transforms the persuasive treatise into a compelling heist film. As the title suggests, the story follows a group of eight people from across the United States who gather in the Texas desert for the shared goal of sabotaging an oil pipeline. They’ve all been affected by climate change, pollution and the greed of the oil industry in their own ways, and each have grown increasingly dissatisfied by the ineffectiveness of peaceful protest and weak politics.
We learn everyone’s backstories through brief flashbacks that are intercut with the group preparing for and attempting to pull off their explosive caper. There’s Xochitl (Ariela Barer), living in heavily polluted and industrialized Long Beach, California, who lost her mother to a heat wave. Perturbed by the slow if not complete lack of change from multiple marches and awareness campaigns put together by student organizations at her university, Xochitl soon embraces a bit of a more radical ideology of how to fight back. It doesn’t take much convincing for her lifelong friend Theo (Sasha Lane) to join her in the crusade, along with fellow doomscrolling student Shawn (Marcus Scribner).
Theo’s partner Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is brought along for the ride as well, but seeing as none of them actually have any idea of how to make a bomb or really plan for such a dangerous (and highly illegal) undertaking, the group enlists the help of some online strangers. Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a young and angry Native American boy who’s lived in the shadow of oil refineries his whole life, runs an amateur demolitions vlog. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are an anarchic duo with plenty of experience in property damage. And finally there’s Dwayne (Jake Weary), who attempted to fight the oil companies from driving him off his family’s land only to lose and lose badly. Their combined outrage becomes incendiary.
This is an appropriately tense movie that has multiple edge-of-your-seat type moments, which helps it keep a certain momentum despite multiple cuts back to the characters’ pasts. Besides the obvious tension behind the group getting caught or the plan going horribly wrong in some way, we’re also shown that not everyone involved may be entirely trustworthy, adding a whole extra layer of suspense. For a film that many would consider as having a radical ideology, How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t exactly radical filmmaking – it’s a pretty standard thriller with an easy to follow narrative and familiar genre elements.
But of course that radical ideology is the entire point, and thankfully Goldhaber and company are able to package and deliver it to the masses in an appealing way. The film is certainly correct in that if the last few years of endless protests – whether they’ve been in the name of race or gender or class or gun violence or the environment – have taught us anything, it’s that they’ll largely be ignored. I’m not sure that I believe a movie, even one as good as this, can fare any better in enacting actual change. But I do believe that it can open some minds up to the possibility of it.
‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is now playing in theaters.