It’s been a little over a year since Andreas Malm’s 2021 book How to Blow Up a Pipeline saw its argument for more climate activism morph into an argument for different climate activism. Money isn’t cutting it. Protests aren’t either. Maybe sabotage will. Its vitality flows like an antidote to the poisonous nihilism surrounding the climate crisis from progressives; its fiery points threaten the crisp piles of cash collected by conservatives. Filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber’s air-punching, chair-clenching, heart-in-mouth adaptation is the best way to convert people to its cause—whether they’re dark green environmentalists or gas-guzzling Senate Republicans. Adapting a nonfiction treatise on the limits of nonviolent protest into a specific, heist-like fiction is a brilliant move by Goldhaber and his co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol. In its execution of a carefully crafted plan, held together by explosive and interpersonal chemistry, it thrusts us into its thrilling visualized philosophy. How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t naïve enough to rely on optimism, opting instead to radicalize competence.
Think of How to Blow Up a Pipeline like a word problem. The most exciting word problem you can imagine, where the two trains leaving the station collide in an explosive snarl of steel, your onboard loved ones saved only by quick thinking and teamwork. How to Blow Up a Pipeline contextualizes its concepts into actions so we can better understand, internalize and identify with them. There’s not a moment lost getting us there. Goldhaber’s sophomore film after 2018’s horror CAM, the filmmaker again plays with lived experience, this time using a different, breakneck genre to enhance his film’s point of view. His debut explored the vulnerabilities inherent to modern life in a digital sphere; his follow-up expands these anxieties to our globe’s biggest threat.
Malm’s chapters (”Learning from Past Struggles,” “Breaking the Spell” and “Fighting Despair”) are elegantly transposed, their high-level arguments humanized into character and conversation. The ensemble—led by student protestors Xochitl (Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), whose plan organically gathers together surly Native bomb-builder Michael (Forrest Goodluck), horny crustpunk couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), terminally ill Theo (Sasha Lane) and her reluctant girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), and disillusioned landowner Dwayne (Jake Weary)—is colorfully drawn and filled out through savvy, well-cut flashbacks. Everyone has their reasons, and we have everyone’s back.
It’s so evenly handled that it’s impossible to praise one star without the others; Barer’s unwavering gaze supplements Scribner’s weight-shifting unease, which allows Froseth and Gage’s comic relief to crack us up and Goodluck’s endearing glower to bring us back down. Meanwhile, Lane and Lawson’s disarmingly raw intimacy supplements Weary’s distance—it’s finely tuned character work, with everyone rising to the occasion. The filmmaking throws back to the pacing and style of ‘70s thrillers (accordingly scored by Gavin Brivik’s too-cool synth riffs), but its excellent cast radiates as much charm as Ocean’s Eleven and as much danger as The Dirty Dozen.
The interactions between these far-flung and disparately motivated characters always feel honest, especially in group settings that are snipped and trimmed to always err on the side of implication rather than exposition. Daniel Garber edited the film, which is a showcase for his temporal skills: With its flashback cutaways, How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes every image collision into a punchline, a crashing release of tension even when it’s stockpiling more (as in one instance that cuts on a self-inflicted explosion). Combined with Goldhaber’s skillful direction, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is masterfully procedural. We understand how a remote detonator is created, feeling every inch and wobble the delicate process undergoes in the Texas heat. We sweat and worry over the lifting, lowering and transportation of a heavy barrel—and then you remember that what’s inside could blow them all to hell. By paying close visual attention to these basic sequences of creation and movement, every step of the narrative invites you to shoulder some of its weight. Only the most exhilarating movies can wind you like this.
By structuring its simple plot (blow up a goddamn pipeline) as a zigzag, How to Blow Up a Pipeline builds its team without losing steam. It’s as efficient and thoughtful in its planning as its heroes, and the results are just as successful. It’s as satisfying as any good bank job, only it’s stealing a little bit more time on this planet from the companies looking to scorch the earth. Responding to tragedy not with hopelessness but with proficiency, it’s not a dreamy or delusional movie. It knows its sabotage doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It understands that people get hurt. What makes How to Blow Up a Pipeline great, is that it so deftly wins us to its cause anyway. It’s absolutely electric filmmaking.
Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Writer: Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, Daniel Goldhaber
Starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard
Release Date: October 14, 2022 (Chicago International Film Festival)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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