Daniel Goldhaber's subversive suspense thriller is based loosely on Andres Malm's non-fiction, climate activism call-to-arms. Co-screenwriter Ariela Barer heads an ensemble of young folks from varied backgrounds who team up to deal a dramatic financial blow to Big Oil, corporate media, and the politicians who are owned by both. Each member of this eco-terrorist team has a different motivation for wanting revenge on these societal forces. Barer's Xochitl is a college student whose mother died as a result of an unexpected heat wave. Forrest Goodluck (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) is a Native American angered by drilling on his ancestral lands and the soft, ineffectual, liberal activism his mother engages in. Jake Weary (It Follows) is a blue-collar Texan radicalized when the government seized his family’s land by eminent domain. Sasha Lane (American Honey) is a young woman with terminal leukaemia caused by growing up near a chemical plant. Then there’s Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), a couple who seem more drawn to the outlaw adventure of this action than by any personal experience or political belief system.
Each character represents an argument for why this type of destructive criminal action, which yields its own form of environmental and societal collateral damage, feels not only like a rational way to address an apocalyptic crisis that the powers-that-be are doing nothing to mitigate, but really the only logical option. Jayme Lawson (The Batman, The Woman King, Till) provides the sole voice that questions the ethics and actions the team engages in. Her character represents the mainstream—people who would never engage in this level of activism. Each of her arguments is quickly, and a little too easily, dismissed, but the script is impressive in how it turns the talking points of Malm's book into credible and engaging dialogue.
The film is structured like Stanley Kubrick'sThe Killing, which is appropriate as this is essentially a heist picture. The main action unfolds chronologically and then doubles back to explain the origin stories of each character. The combination of this tight, energetic scripting and the performances of the actors makes for a gripping movie experience that delivers a difficult message in ways that keep you thinking long after the movie ends. The one thing that doesn’t feel accurately represented, even with the presence of the Rowan and Logan characters, is the extreme discord usually found in collectives like this that are not headed by an experienced organizer. The events of the film all unfold a little too easily. However, the picture’s pace and structure enable it to steamroll such concerns and even a few logical contrivances in the final act.
While watching How to Blow Up A Pipeline I thought a lot about the great 2013 film The East by Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, as well as Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves from 2014. Goldhaber's film falls right between those two pictures in terms of effectiveness. Pipeline is far more viscerally powerful than Night Moves, but it lacks the contemplative exploration of the emotional consequences of political extremism found in that picture. And Pipeline makes its political points more directly than The East, but it can’t touch that movie in terms of the way The East develops multi-dimensional characters and a more perfectly crafted narrative. What How to Blow Up A Pipeline does better than any film I’ve seen in a long time is tangibly capture and portray the anger of a generation that feels betrayed and rejected by all the social systems they grew up with. More significantly, it shows how that anger can be channelled into something other than despondence or meaningless surface-level activism.
Andres Malm’s non-fiction, climate activism call-to-arms is adapted into an effective suspense thriller about a group of eco-terrorists out for revenge on the industry responsible for destroying their lives in various ways, as well as the societal systems that not only fail to prevent this but enable it.