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‹ Flicks with The Film Snob

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

June 21, 2023
Flicks with The Film Snob
Flicks with The Film Snob
How to Blow Up a Pipeline

A group of young people plan to blow up an oil pipeline in Texas, in this climate activism thriller.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline takes its title from a book by Andreas Malme. It’s not really a “how to” book, but argues that climate activists are going to have to do more than just demonstrate. They’re going to have to commit sabotage if they hope to help prevent the worst catastrophes ahead of us. Daniel Goldhaber’s film turns this idea into a thriller about a team of eight people planning to blow up a major pipeline in Texas. He co-wrote the film with Jordan Sjol and one of the lead actors, Ariela Barer.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline bears resemblance to many classic heist films, in which a team of characters, with their individual talents and flaws, comes together to pull off a big job. Here, the story’s main thread, the long and careful preparation for their action, is interrupted as we go along by flashbacks giving the motivations and background of each character. The one cinematic parallel that comes to mind is Reservoir Dogs, although in tone and subject matter the films are not at all alike.

Ariela Barer plays Xochitl, a young woman from Long Beach, California, growing up in the shadow of the oil refineries that she blames for her mother’s early death. One of her best friends is Theo (Sasha Lane), a lesbian who’s been diagnosed with leukemia, and sees environmental pollution as the cause. Xochitl also meets and befriends Shaun (Marcus Scriber), part of a divestment movement in their Chicago college. Shawn recruits an unlikely ally into their group, Dwayne (Jake Weary), a blue collar Texan whom you might expect to be conservative, except that oil companies have used the device of “eminent domain” to seize land that is part of his inherited homestead. The film uses the character of Dwayne to illustrate that not everyone fighting the climate crisis is going to be a left-wing type. His special usefulness in the team is that he knows the landscape around the target like the back of his hand. Rounding out the team is Michael (Forrest Goodluck) a Native American who has turned himself into a bomb expert, and finally, a goofy young white couple whose casual attitudes about the whole thing are meant to set off alarm bells for the audience.

This is not a polemic. There’s room for argument, for example from Michael’s mother, a more traditional non-violent activist, and from Theo’s girlfriend, played by Jayme Lawson, who joins the group because she’s deeply in love with Theo, but is continually alarmed by the risk and danger of the enterprise, asking if this is all worth the potential consequences.
The picture works very well as a thriller, outside of any political context—it’s gripping, suspenseful, and cleverly plotted. The story of Michael, the bomb expert, is especially dramatic and striking. The film is not above using the threat of catastrophe to get our pulses racing, and with Michael that includes every time he goes about crafting the bomb that they’re planning to use.

At the same time, the movie is daring in its convictions. A story like this, conveying ideas that are not mainstream, to put it mildly, can be ruined by special pleading or the manipulation of sentiment. Goldhaber does none of that. Here is a gang of idealistic misfits: approve of them or don’t, either way the story will force you to think. How to Blow Up a Pipeline brilliantly uses the fictional to raise awareness of the actual.

activism,   oil,   plot,   radicals,   Texas,  


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