Director Daniel Goldhaber’s How To Blow Up A Pipeline is a timely eco-thriller with all the suspense of a true heist film.
Based on ideas in the non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm, How To Blow Up A Pipeline structures its plot around Malm’s argument that environmental sabotage is a perfectly reasonable and encouraged form of climate activism. In 2023, we are living in a reality where climate scientists and activists have time and again said we are past the point of passivism when it comes to global climate change. Extreme weather like floods, droughts, heatwaves, and fires are now a common occurrence while governments, major corporations, and the wealthiest nations in the world still debate climate action plans at a glacial pace. And even then, those glaciers are melting faster than climate action.
It is within our own reality that Goldhaber’s film is centred. It is December 2023, and a group of disparate young environmental activists have come together to sabotage an oil pipeline in a West Texas oil refinery. As the group plans and executes their complex plan of attack, we are introduced to each of the characters in flashback sequences in the roughly three days before the planned bombing.
Xotchil (Ariela Barer) is a young woman whose mother died in a heatwave and now acts out by destroying gas-guzzling and carbon emissions-spewing luxury vehicles, leaving a note on the climate crisis in her destructive wake. Her best friend Theo (Sasha Lane) has cancer after years of living near a chemical plant is supported by her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson). Couple Rowan (Kristine Forseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are no strangers to extreme climate activism, being labelled as eco-terrorists for their actions and idealized rage. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is a campus climate activist who has become disillusioned with the lack of action and passivity of others when it comes to enacting real change. Meanwhile, Dwayne (Jake Weary) is a working-class family man in Texas who is tired of protecting his property from being scooped up by oil developers, something he has in common with Indigenous North Dakota man, Michael (Forrest Goodluck).
In the adaptation of Malm’s book, co-written by Goldhaber, Barer and Jordan Sjol, these characters are rendered from archetypes affected by the current climate crisis. Though the message and motive behind each of these characters is a bit too on-the-nose, the roles are nevertheless well-acted if lacking the tension or urgency through the flashback introductions of each. Structurally, the flashbacks to each character can be jarring, pumping the brakes on any momentum-building. Though this is not a deterrent to the overall film, perhaps a more linear approach would have ratcheted up the stakes much quicker and sustained anxiety in a more natural way.
Where How To Blow Up A Pipeline really gels is in the second half of the film, once we’ve waded through the backstories of each character. Naturally, despite hours of preparation, the day of the bombing doesn’t go according to plan. It is in these moments that true tension arrives as the group attempts to ad-lib in order to pull off the dangerous mission. Here, the film is at its most entertaining as we see how meticulously thought-out their plan of attack is and how they will navigate major hiccups.
Though all of the actors in the film are well-cast, it is Lawson and Goodluck who stand out from the pack both in terms of their acting skills and that their characters have such clear and concise motivations. Lawson’s star has been on the rise from her standout performance in Farewell Amor in 2020 to roles in Till, The Woman King and as young Michelle Obama in TV’s The First Lady, and she adds another compelling role to her filmography here. It is hard to take your eyes off of her whenever she is on screen. Equally good is Goodluck who brings real energy to Michael, a man known for posting online video tutorials on how to build bombs.
Goldhaber presents his story in a competent way, drawing on inspiration from true American classic thrillers like Michael Mann’s heist classic Thief. Just like in Thief, Goldhaber presents his characters without commentary, letting their stories unfold on screen and asking the audience to decide who is right and who is wrong here. Should Indigenous peoples not fight for their ancestral land the same way a white Texan feels compelled to fight greedy corporations for his own property? When passive activism has failed, is sabotage a logical next step? How To Blow Up A Pipeline doesn’t judge, but it does appear to endorse Malm’s treatise on taking action against climate change before it’s too late. Whether any of the ideas put forth in the film will encourage action remains to be seen.
How To Blow Up A Pipeline held its world premiere at TIFF and is will be released in cinemas on April 14.