How to Blow Up a Pipeline review – eco-terrorism drama is as exciting and radical as its title implies
Daniel Goldhaber's film takes its cues from the paranoid thrillers of the '70s to craft a very fun but deeply serious ode to young activists
Even though climate change and the activism needed to prevent it is an obvious hot topic for Hollywood, it’s rare that films let their heroes be the ones taking direct action. Too often, whether it be for big superhero blockbusters or for something worthier, this role is given either the cartoon-y villain of the piece or someone who “just takes it too far.” Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline steadfastly refuses to stick to this script, taking the activism at its heart deeply seriously in an urgent and thrilling call to action.
Taking inspiration from Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same title – the key argument of which is that property destruction is an inherent part of any successful push for change – Goldhaber’s story follows a slightly rag-tag group of young radicals pooling their resources and skills to blow up an oil pipeline in West Texas. Each has been pushed to breaking point, whether that’s the death in a heatwave of the mother of de facto group leader Xochitl (Ariela Barer, also one of the film’s writers) or a terminal cancer diagnosis for spirited second-in-command Theo (Sasha Lane), who grew up next to an air-poisoning refinery.
Though there are some heated debates between the group, especially as to what might constitute a move from “sabotage” into “terrorism,” they’re united by their commitment to the cause and make for a great ensemble. Barer and Lane both imbue their characters with a leader’s charisma, while Forrest Goodluck does a great line in near-nihilistic rage as the group’s resident bomb-maker Michael, a Native American sick to death of seeing energy companies ravage his home in North Dakota. There’s not a weak link among the group, helped by nuanced writing that drip feeds you character information slowly and steadily, until you can see the big picture.
We get a lot of this info in the flashback sequences that intersperse the main action, taking us all across the USA to get, for lack of a better term, each team member’s ‘origin story’. Though these flashes initially feel a bit disruptive to the film’s pacing, you eventually grow to appreciate the depth they bring to the story, and Goldhaber’s habit of placing them just as something looks like it might go horribly wrong in the present makes for a funny, if abrasive, running gag.
The planning and execution of the bombing itself, styled like a heist film, is consistently heart-in-mouth exciting, always building and building until one of the most purely satisfying endings of the year so far. Though the group are talented, they are also amateurs who may or may not be being watched by the FBI (though Goldhaber doesn’t go too heavy on the paranoia), meaning a thrilling undercurrent of danger is ever present. Add to this the lovely, grainy visuals – the vast Texas skies at sunset are just gorgeous – and the general “fuck-the-system” vibes, and Goldhaber’s ‘70s influences become very clear. It’s an obvious decade to draw from, the pinnacle of Hollywood’s inconsistent love affair with the radical outsider, and to the great credit of Goldhaber and his team, How to Blow Up a Pipeline can stand toe-to-toe with its inspirations.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is released in UK cinemas on April 21.Where to watch