Inspired by the book of the same name, ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is an incendiary call to action by and for the next generation.
Partway through How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a crew member for a milquetoast climate change documentary admits to one of the subjects after hours that “the movie sucks.” Though well-intentioned, it won’t actually change anything. It won’t make a difference, challenge authority in any meaningful way, or inspire people to take action. In many ways, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a narrative film aiming to be better than what’s come before by actually being provocative.
The film is somewhat based on Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name, which covers a history of environmental movements, specifically arguing justifications for property destruction as a method of self-defense against systemic injustice. How to Blow Up a Pipeline channels those arguments into a gripping heist thriller that is more missionary than pastor in the sense that it’s all about action and is done preaching.
The plot follows a group of various young people from different parts of the U.S. who conspire to blow up two segments of a pipeline in West Texas. Each of them has their own motivation and backstory for why they’re taking such an extreme risk in what will be called terrorism. In fact, when one of the activists asks what the odds are that they might blow themselves up, the specialist in charge of the bombs (Michael, played by Forrest Goodluck), simply responds, “I don’t really care.” In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the stakes are a given. The aim isn’t to persuade an audience of taking climate change seriously. It’s to activate activism.
“They will defame us and claim this was violence.”
Director Daniel Goldhaber (who co-wrote the screenplay with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol) uses a lofi approach in both visual style and sound to echo a grassroots effort. The film is purposefully grainy to evoke the crew’s amateur experience in all this, with all of them being various rebels living below their means in some fashion. We get to know each of the main cast through intermittent vignettes and flashbacks that demonstrate not just who they are, but where they’re coming from.
There’s the visionary, Xochitl (Ariela Barer). Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is the heart of the group. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are the unpredictable anarchists. Michael is the nihilistic mastermind. Theo (Sasha Lane) is the catalyst, and her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is the voice of reason. And finally there’s Dwayne (Jake Weary), who defies the conservative Texan stereotype and is actually a complicated, independent source on the inside, able to map out the actual plan because this pipeline affected him and his family personally.
Though structured and presented as a grimy, independent feature pulsing with social commentary, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is surprisingly slick and effortlessly paced. The heist itself has tremendous tension, and the filmmakers adeptly know where to place breathers for the audience without overly disrupting the momentum.
The bottom line.
There’re times when the construction of the story comes off as almost too schmaltzy and self-righteous, but perhaps that’s the film’s way of depicting the constant moral crisis some of these characters are in. Not all of them are fully onboard, and not all of them instantly buy into the idea of destruction as a valid solution. These debates aren’t the best part of the film, but they’re the most intriguing. Here’s a film about activism that doesn’t cut corners or try to be likable. It’s not trying to appeal to people who don’t care, but rather the people who know they should.
It’s fitting, too, that this film has come out at a time when the next generation is at its most fed up in terms of political gridlock in America. On climate change, gun control, abortion, and so many other issues where the majority of Americans agree on the solution, but the minority block any change, significant or incremental. A movie won’t do much to move the needle, but at the very least it should reveal what young people can and will do when given no other option in a system that will continue to fail them.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Neon.
HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE - 8.5/10