How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a message movie with the urgency of a thriller
A lot of issue movies sanitize or soften their messages through a broader story or by using movie stars. The new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t have time for that. It gets right to the point with a brazen title and story that never strays from its central thesis.
From minute one, the film’s characters — a group of eight environmental activists — are shown engaging in acts of sabotage to try to get the world to understand the harm fossil fuels are doing to the planet. The film quickly shows them gathering together at a dilapidated house in West Texas to plan and execute the title mission, filling in various characters’ backstories as it goes along.
Each has their individual reason for going to this extreme. Xochi (Ariela Barer) and Theo (Sasha Lane) live in Long Beach, California, with both Xochi’s mom and Theo herself experiencing negative health consequences from a nearby oil refinery. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) in Parshall, North Dakota is angry at a pipeline that's been built on indigenous land. Dwayne (Jake Weary) lives near Odessa, Texas, and is trying to prevent a pipeline being built on his property.
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber and written by Goldhaber, Barer, and Jordan Sjol, the film is based on a book of the same name by Swedish author and professor Andreas Malm, who has also covered the subject for publications such as The Nation and The Guardian. The filmmakers don't hide their agenda, but they also don't bog the story down with the intricacies of the climate debate. For the purposes of this movie, it's sufficient to know that each person has reached the point where he or she believes that blowing up a pipeline is the logical next step for them.
If the story wasn't about a real-world issue, you could view it as a fun, Ocean's Eleven-style crime film. Every person in the group has their specialty, including an explosives expert, planners, getaway driver, and more. And like any group of disparate people with a common core belief, some are more dedicated to the cause than others, including a possible rat in their midst.
Flashbacks in the story not only serve to give crucial background information on the characters, but also show that the impact of oil pipelines, refineries, and drilling is not confined to just certain parts of the country. The movie is a far cry from subtle overall, but the filmmakers let the visuals do the work in many instances.
Each of the stars was born in 1990 or later, so the millennial urgency of the story feels earned. They have all gained some acclaim, either in films or TV, with Lane arguably the most well-known of the group. Like any good group film, every actor gets a chance to shine; it will be interesting to see if any use this as a stepping-stone to bigger movies.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an urgent call to pay attention and do something about climate change. If the fact that it’s also a highly watchable movie with bright young stars makes it an easier pill to swallow, so much the better.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is now screening in select theaters.