‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Review: A Compelling Heist Thriller for the Climate Crisis Era
Climate scientists and activists have repeatedly said that we’re past the stage of sounding the alarm: Deadly floods, record heatwaves and other extreme weather occurrences are now part of our reality. In the face of this evidence, most governments have moved glacially to pass urgent legislation. And the condemnation of protesters who hurled tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in London’s National Gallery last fall reveals that a majority of people still care more about property than human lives. (Almost lost in that debate about tactics was a critical detail: The painting was protected by glass, and no real damage had been done.)
In this atmosphere, Daniel Goldhaber’s tense and entertaining How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an accessible wake-up call. Despite its daring premise and provocative title, the film won’t teach you the mechanics of making or detonating a bomb. It functions more as a plea to the Global North — the wealthiest countries in the world and those currently shielded from the worst of climate disaster — to pay attention.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
The Bottom Line
Goldhaber’s film, which he wrote with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol based on Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name, opens in the near future. It’s December 2023 and roughly 56 hours before a group of environmentalists will convene to blow up a pipeline at a Texas oil refinery.
Their preparation is fed to us in flashes: Xotchil (Barer), a young woman whose mother died in a heat wave, slashes the tire of a luxury car and leaves an explanatory note about the climate crisis; her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane), who developed cancer from living near a chemical plant, destroys her phone in the parking lot of a church where she’s just attended her support group meeting; Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) creates an alibi by tampering with security camera metadata at the house she cleans; Rowan (Kristine Forseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), a nomadic couple, rage one last time at a nondescript night club; Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a young indigenous man sick of watching white developers encroach on his land, and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a disillusioned campus activist, separately pack bomb-making materials; Dwayne (Jake Weary), a working-class Texan trying to protect his property from greedy developers, sits down for dinner with his wife and children.
The set-up is deft but broad, which is also the best way to describe this loosely allegorical film. Each character represents an archetype in the current crisis, from the disillusioned activists to the young person whose health becomes the collateral damage of environmental malfeasance. While these stories are relatable and well-acted by a sturdy cast of exciting talent, they lack the potency of depth. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is skillfully executed — it hits all the right beats as a genre film, especially when it comes to ratcheting up the tension — but suffers from the same narrative limitations as Goldhaber’s equally compelling debut feature. Cam.
That film, written by Goldhaber, Issa Mazzei and Isabelle Link-Levy, plunges viewers into the world of camgirls. Madeline Brewer plays Alice, a camgirl aspiring to ascend into the top 50 of her website’s rank. The film avoids condescending pitfalls and exploiting its protagonist by initially focusing on the quotidian aspects of her work — brainstorming ideas for her shows, keeping up with clients and collaborating with other women in her field. But as Cam gets more twisted and inches into Black Mirror horror territory, Alice’s inner life slowly falls out of view and her character development is shortchanged for nail-biting action.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is plagued by similar problems, tempering the initially fatal stakes of the film. The prospect of duplicity from one of the characters briefly hangs in the air, before being neatly resolved before the closing credits. The background stories, which are doled out through flashbacks, offer space to make the characters feel more lived-in, but they are mostly used to provide the obvious motivations for joining the group. The screenplay is relatively spare, and those attuned to the current level of calamity will be disappointed by what feels like perfunctory bits of dialogue.
The film is, however, high on entertainment value: There’s a thrill to watching the young environmentalists cook up this plan (however vaguely it’s rendered), test their bombs in an abandoned shack, tie the explosive barrels to the pipelines and detonate them. Goldhaber’s directorial talents are most evident in these moments when the film burrows into the stress of execution and flirts with the ideological differences that crack at the collective’s facade.
For most people How to Blow Up a Pipeline will feel radical enough: Consider the fact that a 2021 Pew poll found that only 34 percent of people surveyed were willing to consider “a lot of changes” to daily life as a response to climate change. But we are past the point of consideration, and there’s a missed opportunity in the film’s third act to galvanize its viewers — to not only get them to feel excited about the prospect of action, but to figure out how to be a part of it.
Some of the problems with How to Blow Up a Pipeline, as with all studio acquisitions, is in the selling. The PR campaign has advertised an entertaining heist-style climate thriller as a well of radical solutions. That’s a disservice we’ve seen before, an unsavory byproduct of the hype machine (see the discourse around Promising Young Womanfor example). How to Blow Up a Pipeline might not offer a blueprint for explosive solutions, but it could spark some ideas.
Production companies: Chrono, Lyrical Media, Spacemaker Productions
Cast: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Screenwriters: Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, Daniel Goldhaber
Producers: Isa Mazzei, Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, Adam Wyatt Tate, David Grove Churchill Viste, Alex Black, Alex Hughes
Executive producers: Jon Rosenberg, Riccardo Maddalosso, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, Jordan Sjol, Natalie Sellers, Eugene Kotlyarenko
Director of photography: Tehillah De Castro
Costume designer: Eunice Jera Lee
Editor: Daniel Garber
Composer: Gavin Brivik
Casting director: Angelique Midthunder, CSA
Rated R, 1 hour 43 minutes
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