Review | ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’: A rational if desperate pragmatism

(2.5 stars)

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a provocation within a provocation, raising all manner of timely questions, from the moral valence of activist sabotage to the value of storytelling itself. Based on Swedish author Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name, this dramatized version of Malm’s polemic — in which he advocated for the use of violence to combat an otherwise certain march toward environmental destruction — presents an absorbing, tautly structured example of how an op-ed headline can be repurposed for solid entertainment.

There are moments in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” when the voices of Malm and the filmmakers emerge a little too obviously — when a billboard message-with-a-capital-M obscures terrain that is far more interesting for its cul de sacs and sinkholes. As a thriller channeling the deepest anxieties of its era, however, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” feels urgently, unmistakably of its time.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” centers on a group of activists who, for various reasons, have been harmed by the fossil fuel industry and who have reached the point where passive concern and working within the system no longer suffice. This ragtag team includes Xochitl and Shawn (Ariela Barer and Marcus Scribner), college friends fed up with what they see as ineffective campus dithering; Theo and Alisha (Sasha Lane and Jayme Lawson), a working-class couple from Long Beach, Calif., who are experiencing the health effects of living near the city’s oil refineries; Logan and Rowan (Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth), hard-partying gutter punks from Portland, Ore.; and two relative outliers: Dwayne (Jake Weary), a west Texas native whose family land has been appropriated by corporate greed and eminent domain, and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a young Indigenous man whose outrage at the centuries-old exploitation of his community has driven him to create YouTube videos on cooking up homemade explosives from stump remover and drain cleaner.

It’s a classically motley team of misfits, whose disparate backgrounds fit perhaps a little too tidily into the filmmakers’ aim to illustrate the long reach of climate change. Luckily, what could have been crudely drawn characters are made thoroughly convincing by a consistently accomplished ensemble of actors, each of whom brings life and specificity to the person they’re playing, whether it’s Gage and Froseth’s coked-up dilettantes or Barer and Scribner’s avatars of a generation that is finding it increasingly difficult to discern a viable future.

Adroitly directed by Daniel Goldhaber from a script he co-wrote with Barer and Jordan Sjol, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” obeys the tightly coiled rules of a caper movie, interrupting the action at pivotal moments with flashbacks into individual origin stories, a conceit handled with seamless skill by editor Daniel Garber. (Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro has filmed “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” on 16-millimeter film, giving it a rough-and-ready sense of immediacy.) As in all the best heist flicks, Goldhaber makes sure to misdirect the audience with some choice red herrings and cliffhangers, nearly all of which end with a genuine surprise.

Perhaps the most shocking of all is the filmmakers’ refusal to give in to the assumptions that Malm railed against in his book: assumptions that relegate a morally serious thesis to the wild-eyed fringe, and thoughtfully considered activism to the whims of fatalistic dead-enders or idealistic naifs. Rather than romanticize its subject matter, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” presents it as a rational, if desperate, form of pragmatism.

Authentic debates are woven into “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” whether by way of Alisha’s no-nonsense skepticism (at one point, she calls Xochitl “just another girl who went to college, read a book and decided she knows how to save the world”) or the moments of doubt that pass like clouds over some protagonists’ faces. But even if cinematic formula and theoretical arguments don’t always mesh, Goldhaber and his collaborators wind up demonstrating impressive courage of their convictions. Viewers will disagree about “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” and the final stance it takes. But at least it’s given them something worth fighting about.

R. At area theaters. Contains strong language throughout and some drug use. 104 minutes.

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