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The characters in How to Blow Up a Pipeline understand how the public will react. They have no delusions they will be celebrated, and grimly joke about their commitment to terrorism. What’s important about this film, an adaptation of a nonfiction book by a Swedish ecology professor, is that it understands why some young people might turn to radicalism. Regardless of whether you call them terrorists or activists, most are not “doomers” who think the world is hopeless. In fact, director Daniel Goldhaber suggests these young extremists come from a place of committed optimism, and by embracing the confines of a ticking clock thriller, he cannily gets the audience to sympathize with their cause.
Before the title card, Goldhaber uses tense music and medium shots to show all the characters in action. They move with unhurried purpose, creating tension because we grow more curious about what they are doing and more involved in their process. (The technique was memorably used in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, except that film began with a bank robbery, not property destruction.)
While the specifics are murky at first, the characters—climate activists—finally explain themselves: They plan to blow up an oil pipeline at two key locations in West Texas, which will send the oil company’s infrastructure into a tailspin. (They’re quick to point out that their action will not bring harm to any people). Along with his co-screenwriters Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, Goldhaber defines the plan for controlled pipeline explosions more through action, unlike a typical heist film where a character patiently explains each step. Barer also plays group leader Xochitl, a disgruntled college student who sees student activism as a lost cause. She recruits her classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner); in flashback we see how the group recruits fellow perpetrators from across the country, bringing them into the fold for the illegal demolition. Each of them have different motivations, but few doubt the others’ commitment.
Aside from the action in West Texas, where we see the preparation and execution of the explosion, How to Blow Up a Pipeline cuts back to vignettes for each of the major characters. This is crucial to the film’s power because we can see the myriad ways the status quo can harm the individual. One harrowing flashback involves Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American who antagonizes oil rig workers in the barren winter, seemingly without any care for his own safety, at least until he starts posting bomb-making techniques on his YouTube channel. His experience is wildly different from Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texas family man who is screwed over by the aforementioned oil company after eminent domain forces him to lose his land and birthright. Not only do these vignettes culminate in the justification of each character’s action, they also create tension among the perpetrators. Many of them do not know each other, so there is a clash of personalities, along with some who hide their true motives.
The bombs in this film look convincingly built, though there is no way of knowing whether the techniques are accurate, unless you want to google that and get on an FBI watch list. Instead, Goldhaber shoots with a DIY aesthetic: There is a high-grain quality to the cinematography, a choice that makes West Texas look downright postapocalyptic. And the limited budget is an opportunity for innovation, adding suspense to practical. To arm the bomb, Michael and the others get close to setting it off, leading to Hitchcockian moments where we are unsure if they will bind the wrong wires. Bombs are also heavy, and there is a considerable challenge to moving them into place. In an oblique way, the film references other bomb-centric thrillers such as The Wages of Fear and The Hurt Locker. Although the flashbacks inform the plot, those concerns are ancillary when the group springs into action. Ideological purity does not matter when everyone crosses the same illegal line, or faces equal danger of being blown up.
Threats of explosion notwithstanding, How to Blow Up a Pipeline would not succeed without a convincing cast. There are about nine people in this group, and some characters are more developed than others. While Barer’s Xochitl is the charismatic leader, it’s easier to connect with Scriber’s Shawn, a character who is complete 180 from the lovable doofus he played on Blackish. He internalizes the cause, letting his actions speak for themselves, recruiting others through his inspired commitment. In contrast, Goodluck’s Michael is a tougher character to appreciate because he is antisocial and off-putting. The actor expresses a great deal with his face, which is always contorted in discomfort. Others seem like hobbyists in comparison to him, which leads to awkward, borderline moments where he tries to commiserate. By facing similar repercussions, no one is purer than the other. But since these characters are barely into their 20s, coming from such different backgrounds and motivations, the actors and Goldhaber ultimately lean in to the fact that their film unfolds like a much more intense, combustible version of The Breakfast Club.
Given the source material and the notes of its final ending, it is tempting to suggest How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a recruitment tool. Culture warriors might even accuse the film of drumming up interest in copycat crimes, which Xochitl says is the secondary purpose behind the destruction. Still, Goldhaber probably agrees that depiction is not endorsement, and more importantly, the flashbacks elaborate on the actual suffering caused by the oil industry. Contrary to the title, this film is not an instruction manual, but rather a way to illuminate genuine moral objections.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline opens at D.C. theaters, including Alamo Drafthouse and Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, on April 7.