Vigilante Terrorist Film ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Fails to Detonate

Vigilante Terrorist Film ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Fails to Detonate

Generating thrills is difficult when there isn’t a sympathetic character in sight—an issue that plagues How to Blow Up a Pipeline, director Daniel Goldhaber’s dramatization of Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book. Executed with pulse-pounding suspensefulness at the same time that it exposes its protagonists as juvenile, selfish, and foolhardy, it’s a work that proves hopelessly at odds with itself all the way to a conclusion that fizzles at the moment it should explode.

Premiering in theaters on April 7 following its showing at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is revved up from the start, introducing its various players in brief snapshots as they receive texts announcing that their operation is a go. As they shift into preparatory gear and convene at an abandoned West Texas house that will function as their headquarters, Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, and Jordan Sjol’s script begins filling in the blanks in bits and pieces, and subsequent flashbacks to each of these individuals’ backstories will further explicate their reasons for being there.

Thanks in part to swift editing courtesy of Daniel Garber, the pace is intensely urgent, and Goldhaber accentuates that mood by telling rather than showing, allowing audiences to catch up with what’s taking place on the fly.

The leader of this gang, it’s quickly clear, is Xochitl (Barer), a university student who, in the wake of her mother’s death, has grown impatient with the pace of her campus environmental club’s activism. In lieu of incremental divestment-driven change, she forwards a more militant plan of action: sabotage and destruction.

After a bit more time becoming red-pilled on Twitter, her classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner) joins her cause, and together, they set about recruiting an ensemble capable of carrying out a large-scale mission to blow up an oil pipeline in the middle of Texas nowhere. Per Xochitl, this will mean that “fossil fuel gets priced out of the market,” thereby forcing the company to change its harmful ways as well as inspiring like-minded souls to take up devastating arms on behalf of Mother Nature.

Xochitl and her comrades are obviously terrorists, as they themselves discuss in a brief, superficial group conversation during which they liken themselves to American Revolutionaries, MLK, and Jesus. Yet they’re completely deluded in believing that their chosen means will result in their coveted ends. That this will only be a temporarily impactful blip for an industry that powers the entire globe is lost on these insurgents, although Goldhaber seems more aware in this regard. A POV shot of the vast empty Texas plains that takes place shortly before things detonate implies that, for all the effort expended on this defiant disruption, it’s merely a drop in the ocean—or, in this case, the desert.

Joining Xochitl and Shawn are recruits who form a multicultural cross-section of furious youngsters. Theo (Sasha Lane) is Xochitl’s childhood best friend who’s dying of a rare leukemia that was likely caused by living close to an oil facility. Alisha (Jayme Lawson), the only level-headed one in the bunch, objects to Theo joining this collective yet nonetheless agrees to participate out of love for her terminal girlfriend.

Dwayne (Jake Weary) is a Lone Star State local who’s fuming over the conglomerate’s use of eminent domain to acquire his land so it can keep building more pipeline. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are two punks who revel in revolt. And Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is a Native American who’s mad at the world and, in particular, the white men who relocate to his North Dakota hometown to work at the nearby refinery.

In most of these cases, the desire to blow up the pipeline comes not from bleeding-heart concern about the planet but, rather, from anger—and, consequently, a hunger for vengeance. While Xochitl pays a bit of lip service to the righteousness of her undertaking, most of her compatriots are propelled by personal grievances that have curdled into annihilating fury—epitomized by Michael admitting, “I’m not trying to rebuild anything.” Viewing oil companies as the source of their problems, they’re less eco-crusaders than disadvantaged and desperate avengers. As such, How to Blow Up a Pipeline serves as an illuminating portrait of the root agents of extremism: powerlessness, bitterness, and delusions of grandeur.

Goldhaber delineates his characters in sharp, cutting strokes, and he wastes no time on excessive frippery; How to Blow Up a Pipeline moves like a freight train speeding toward the end of the line. So propulsive is the filmmaking that it’s easy to get caught up in the terrorists’ scheme, to the point of instinctively rooting for them to perform a given feat or meet a vital deadline.

Its momentum helps gloss over a few unbelievable narrative developments, be it an initial, overly convenient meeting between Shawn and Logan or a later DIY bullet extraction that suggests these streetwise kids are hardened criminals. Overall, the film is a well-constructed clockwork mechanism, facilitated by cinematography (via Tehillah De Castro) that captures the arid bleakness of Texas’ rural landscape and contributes to the material’s unforgiving atmosphere.

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Unfortunately, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a case of form trumping content. Although Goldhaber, Barer and Sjol’s tale faintly recalls Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, it willfully eschews depth, both in terms of its protagonists (who are all two-dimensional at best) and its perspective on its own action. Taking a relatively detached view of the proceedings might, in theory, allow Xochitl and her comrades to earn audience sympathy and/or hang themselves, but in this instance, it mostly renders them reactionaries who talk a big game about oil-industry villainy without ever espousing an ethos that might sell their venture as justified or pragmatic.

Moreover, no matter how hard he tries to remain neutral, Goldhaber can’t resist demonstrating compassion for his troublemakers, most notably in two close-ups of extended, intimate kisses between Theo and Alisha.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline does what its title promises and little else, affording a step-by-step view of how a squad of compatible radicals (connected through, and fueled by, the internet) could accomplish such an insurrectionist task. It’s got the how down pat, if not the why—or, crucially, the what next.

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The Daily Beast

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