Film Review – How to Blow Up a Pipeline
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Based on the book by Andreas Maim, How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022) is a white-knuckle ride that does not let up from beginning to end. Instead of dancing around its political themes, director Daniel Goldhaber (who cowrites with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol) places them front and center. The characters we meet are environmental activists who have given up on standard operating procedures. They have grown tired of incremental (if non-existent) government reforms – they sense the planet is dying at an accelerated rate. As a result, they take the most extreme measures to get their point across. Given the title, I think we can all surmise the kind of actions they take.
Not since last year’s Athena (2022) has a film been this enraged. It buzzes with the energy of its characters. Their frustration with seeing oil companies destroy the environment and the passive nature of those in power have forced their hand. This premise will undoubtably cause debate. Does the end justify the means? Will the sabotage and destruction of property truly inspire others to fight? Are these characters activists or terrorists? It’s argued that some of the greatest moments in history were acts of rebellion or violent disruption – the Boston Tea Party being a prime example. To these young people, the bombing of an oil pipeline is a bold and necessary step for real change – some even describe it as self-defense. It’ll be interesting to see how certain demographics will respond. The film draws a line in the sand and lets viewers decide where they stand.
Thankfully, Goldhaber and the rest of the production anchors the political with the personal. Nearly all the characters have been directly affected by the pollution and waste of the oil industry. Xochitl (Barer) – a former college student – lost her mother due to the elevated heat caused by climate change. Dwayne (Jake Weary) had a pipeline cut right through his property, destroying his land, and poisoning the air. Theo (Sasha Lane) grew up next to an oil refinery and believes that her recent cancer diagnosis was from the exposure. In one of the key scenes, a character walks onto their front lawn, with the site of a refinery looming over them in the background. It’s a striking image that hits right into the heart of these people. Their choices aren’t just based on ideology – they have been shaped by their personal experiences. They each come from different walks of life but have gone through similar tragedies.
And that’s how we find them gathered in an abandoned house deep in West Texas. Most of the action takes place here, where Xochitl, Dwayne, Theo, and five others plot to destroy a nearby pipeline. They gather supplies and map out their moves much like bank robbers planning out a heist. However, there is an added element – the risk of blowing themselves to smithereens. Making household explosives creates an atmosphere of high tension. Avoiding the authorities is hard enough, but the group must also be careful not to cross the wrong wire and accidentally set off the explosives. Goldhaber’s direction has a naturalistic, handheld, almost documentary like visual style. The sense of realism makes the bomb-setting scenes even more suspenseful. It’s the reverse of The Hurt Locker (2008). The tension in that film was in seeing if characters could successfully defuse a bomb. Here, we anxiously wait as character plant them.
The editing (Daniel Garber) divides the story with flashbacks, cutting to individuals and their circumstances prior to joining the group. In lesser hands, this approach could have tampered the momentum. Luckily, the structure helps amplify it. Because we see character backgrounds, we better understand them on a human level. We become invested in their stories. When something potentially bad happens, the editing will cut right at the crucial moment to go into the past and follow someone’s journey. That way, when we return to the present, the stakes have been raised. Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is Theo’s partner. She sees the toll the cancer has taken. Alisha joins the cause not only because she believes in it, but because she believes in Theo. Amongst the group, Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is the most on edge. With a broken home and burning urge to do something, Michael exists only for the mission. He is the most driven, but also the most dangerous. I began to wonder, if Michael didn’t find the pipeline to narrow his focus, would he have eventually found something else to destroy?
There is a sense of impending dread the closer the group comes to executing the plan. With each step the cloud of doom grows over their heads. Tehillah De Castro’s cinematography uses close ups to accentuate the escalating danger. Shots of vials, wires, remote detonators, radios, powder being poured into drums, etc. All these are juxtaposed together to clue us in on the size and scope of the explosive. This isn’t some small undertaking – these people are creating something big. Gavin Brivik’s music has a pulsating rhythm with lots of low rumbling bass, reminiscent of a crime film. The cinema verité style creates an immediate, in-your-face effect. We are made to feel right next to the group, holding our breath as the plan kicks off and things start to go bad. Whatever one’s political leanings might be, on a purely cinematic basis, this is a powerfully crafted, edge-of-your-seat thriller.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline closes with a call to arms that is not convincing. I don’t think a single act of destruction will suddenly reverse climate change. But it will provoke conversation. Whether or not the group is right is not the issue. The issue is that they felt so strongly that this was their only option. The narrative works because it doesn’t condone or criticize the decision but points the finger at the root cause. Blowing up a pipeline is a symptom of a bigger and more troubling problem than a bunch of kids being reckless. We the audience are put into the characters’ shoes and are asked what we would do in that situation. Goldhaber and his team have made a passionate, angry, and impressive movie. It radiates with urgency, staking its claim not with subtlety or metaphor but with blunt force trauma.