“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” Review: Climate Activism Goes Explosive

Even among many who have grasped the scientific evidence or experienced escalating weather extremes, for most climate change remains an abstraction — something too big and vague to prompt an urgent emotional response. Not so the fictional activists in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”, inspired by Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same name. Despite differing backgrounds and motivations, the eight people gathered here to attack a Texas oil pipeline share a sense that the planet’s environmental crisis is imminent and the time for gently reprimanding protests is over.

Whether their actions constitute “eco-terrorism” and whether violence of any kind in the service of progress is ever justified are questions Daniel Goldhaber’s second film duly addresses. Still, its level of moral self-examination is unlikely to appease climate deniers, who are likely to vilify the film (if they even notice it) as a recruiting poster for aspiring saboteurs. It’s more nuanced than that, but this powerful, no-nonsense drama-thriller about a divisive issue will still appeal primarily to viewers on the left side of the political dial. Neon hits US theaters on April 7th.

An opening sequence briefly introduces us to the geographically dispersed protagonists, most of whom are working class in their 20s and 30s. We quickly discover that these strangers have already organized themselves over long distance into a team secretly planning an act of industrial destruction, for which they are now meeting in a remote, abandoned homestead. Their goal: an oil pipeline in West Texas, which was recently built despite objections from concerned residents and environmentalists.

The rest of the film intersperses contemporary narratives with chaptered glimpses of individual backstories. Theo (Ariela Barer) has discovered that she has a rare end-stage leukemia, contracted from growing up in the toxic atmosphere of a refinery town. Her joining of this band is enthusiastically supported by best friend Xochitl (Arila Barer), more reluctantly by mistress Alisha (Jayme Lawson). Dwayne (Jack Weary) is a taciturn rural Texan who is furious that the government has been confiscating his family’s property for the construction of the pipeline for a century and robbing him and his pregnant wife of their home.

Native American Michael (Forrest Goodluck) generally rages at the ongoing violations of tribal land rights and chooses this course of protest in part to rebel against his mother’s (Irene Bedard) pacifist activism. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) wanted to make a difference by working on a documentary about radical environmentalists, but decided to join them directly. The least likable, most caricatured characters here are white straight couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), who seem to be such irresponsible party animals that we can’t quite believe the others are including them in their secret circle to record.

Still, these two are also given more dimensionality as the story offers later twists. The methods of tactics (Michael’s bomb-making, any difficulties in placing the incendiary device, and keeping the authorities at a safe distance) are credibly worked out and credibly fallible – after all, these people are not criminal masterminds.

When zero hour arrives, the required tasks are completed with ample tension stemming from both the risk of arrest and their own potential for error. Knowing their act will harm ordinary citizens (by disrupting supplies and thereby temporarily raising oil prices), they rationalize these costs in the hope that this will send a strong message to fossil fuel advocates. The message is that fundamental systemic change is needed to avoid (or even mitigate) a catastrophic future for humanity – and denial will only bring more wealth-damaging evasions.

Like the somewhat controversial book that was published just two years ago, this Pipeline screen is much less the billed “how-to” and more a “why” pondering the reasons some lead to bodily harm or risk imprisonment for a cause Climate scientists fear we’ve already lost. It certainly helps that the actors eschew any extravagant twists for a naturalism that makes this motley crew seem plausible enough.

While it doesn’t feel like these characters are escaping at least some of the expected consequences, Pipeline still eludes them and gives them over-the-top heroic glamour. Goldhaber’s succinct, non-hyperbolic, almost quasi-documentary tenor complements a screenplay (co-written with cast member Barer and executive producer Jordan Sjol) that manages to balance character drama, thriller aspects, and discussions of the larger ethical issues that go well integrated enough are to avoid didactics.

Unlike “Cam,” a riveting 2018 mystery about an online adult performer’s identity theft, “Pipeline” has a straightforward aesthetic that rarely draws attention. Tehillah De Castro’s cinematography favors understated compositions and a degree of hand movement. Editor Daniel Garber maintains a tight pacing that, like the plot itself, pauses short of the usual caper/spy genre knife twisting. Gavin Brivik’s original score ramps up the tension as needed with unforgettable but efficient pulsating electronics. “Technical Advisor” is referred to as “Anonymous” – probably not the hacktivist group of that name, but you get the feeling that someone who has been consulted here really does know the practical details of an attack of the type presented.

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