How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022)

Art imitates life. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that environmental concerns shared by many across the globe are becoming more prominently reflected in what we see on the big screen. In fact, movies about environmental anxieties, eco-thrillers, eco-horrors and the like have been persistently present in the zeitgeist. Think of The Blob from 1958, assorted creature features or even the 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still; though the latter is only tangentially appropriate to mention, as the much-maligned remake from 2008 is more closely tied to environmental issues, rather than the nuclear arms race, around which the original is centered. 

However, much like the climate change itself – that has been slowly creeping up on the unsuspecting human population of Earth gleefully contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, production of toxic and non-biodegradable waste, ozone depletion and so on, disregarding warnings and prophetic signs – movies commenting on climate change have been becoming progressively more abundant in recent years with Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, The East, Okja, Snowpiercer, The Host (come to think of it, Bong Joon-ho has been pretty active in this area), and many more. In fact, it is probably better not to see those movies as exemplars of a genre, but rather as ideations of a theme slowly gathering in momentum and slowly heading towards a cultural tipping point.  

Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, adapted from a book of the same name by Andreas Malm, may become one of the most prominent heralds of such an impending tipping point where cinema – just like our everyday lives – will become overwhelmed by artistic reflections on climate change and related woes. And that’s not only because of its underlying thematic messaging, which is undoubtedly strong and suffused across the narrative. It is predominantly because How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a great movie, full stop.  

Bolstered by immediacy of handheld camera work, Goldhaber’s film is probably the closest to what would happen if Harmony Korine directed a remake of The Wages of Fear. It’s a movie built on a simple premise, yet it radiates with energy comparable to some of the tensest thrillers in recent memory. In short, it is a story of a group of people, all coming from different walks of life, who assemble to perform an act of eco-terrorism. As the title of the film suggests, they are planning to blow up an oil pipeline in Texas, both to draw attention to their cause and to alert big oil corporations that their days are numbered. And they all have their reasons. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) just lost her mother. Theo (Sasha Lane) is dying of leukemia. Logan (Lukas Gage) was forcible resettled by an oil company. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) hurts internally at the sight of the industry ravaging his ancestral land. The list goes on.  

They all band together and devise a plan to venture to the no man’s land of West Texas with barrels full of fertilizer and make the world listen. And the movie is a fly-on-the-wall verité-style document of how this band of young revolutionaries comes together to achieve their goals. Interestingly, this is where a movie with such grand ambitions to advance a truly potent message could easily succumb to its own political pontifications and perhaps undermine itself similarly to the now mostly forgotten The East or Fast Food Nation. However, Goldhaber his cohorts have most assuredly done their homework and understood that the message will for the most part advance itself.  

If your prose is clean and your heart is pure, the world will know what you mean. Therefore, they took it upon themselves to facilitate the process of the viewers receiving their message in the best way possible – they committed unequivocally to turning this otherwise highly charged treaty on modern politics that could easily diverge into tribal sabre-rattling into a bona fide rollercoaster of organic and grass-fed suspense of the type you’d find in the most competent heist movies like Rififi, and men-on-a-mission thrillers like Sorcerer.  

Hence, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is nothing short of phenomenal as it transports you into the headspace of its central operators, bolts you to your seat and leaves you breathless for its entire duration. It is a brilliant example of utilitarian filmmaking that uses all its tools in service of relaying this story in the most compelling way possible. This lo-fi indie put together by people who don’t necessarily have loads of collective filmmaking experience to rub together actually benefits from its homemade allure because it effectively convinces the viewer that it could just as easily have been made by folks who drove to West Texas with barrels of fertilizer for real.  

Consequently, it effectively does not matter if the actors in front of the camera know what they are doing or if they can own the frame in a way some A-list Hollywood stalwarts would. The fact that How to Blow Up a Pipeline is rough around the edges is what makes it as powerful as it is because it will (and should) convince you that the thin line between what’s on the screen and what’s real does not exist. And not every movie can achieve this quasi-documentary miracle of filming something fake in such a compelling way that it truly becomes real.  

Therefore, I am happy to report that Daniel Goldhaber’s movie – grandiose as it may come across – perhaps will be one day included in the same conversation as Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers as an example of immediate filmmaking working full-throttle to conjure a reality out of a fictitious narrative and use this miracle to advance a political message, whose importance cannot be understated. It is a phenomenal piece of suspenseful filmmaking and a triumph of utilizing the basic elements of genre storytelling to great effect. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a lean and mean example of cinematic immediacy at its finest that makes stunning use of extremely limited tools at its disposal to bring about an experience of the kind we rarely witness on the big screen.  

There’s no dancing around it: I truly loved this movie. Rarely do I get to be whisked away from my seat with such ease only to be dropped into a war zone of intrigue, suspense and emotional conviction protruding through the characters so competently that you would be excused if you wished to accompany them on their mission.  

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is therefore indispensable. Indispensable and brilliant.  


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