4 out of 5 stars

Don’t Look Up (2021) served as the perfect example of a ‘message movie’ gone bad. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is how to do one correctly. This low-budget eco-thriller takes a hard line toward the defining life-and-death issue of our time—climate change—but surefooted craftsmanship and swift suspense help overcome any objections one might have to message movies. Agree with it or not, its makers have done a snappy job in a classic genre.

The film is a fiction inspired by a non-fiction book of the same name, in which author Andreas Malm advocates for property destruction as a valid form of resistance against the oil companies, and others, who are driving climate change. To dramatise this, filmmakers have laid these ideas over a “men-on-a-mission” movie (or, in current usage, “people-on-a-mission”). The target of their wrath is an oil pipeline in West Texas, owned by a multinational oil company.

Set in West Texas (actually shot in New Mexico), it’s also a David vs Goliath tale. The Davids are a grungy rainbow band ranging from their late-teens to early-thirties, hot with rage and fed up with conventional non-violent approaches to climate change that, to them, are moving nowhere near fast enough. Like all good revolutionaries, impatient with ambiguity and nuance, they want to leap over and plow right through the intermediate steps to their desired goal. By their logic, sabotaging the energy infrastructure is a shortcut to making oil (and other pollutants) uneconomical, thereby driving them from the marketplace.

We meet this cross-section of young Americans as their mission is ready to launch. How they took this road to radical sabotage is told through flashbacks, neatly edited in by Daniel Garber throughout the runtime. Some of them are dreamers who envision a sustainable future rising from the ruins of their destruction; others are revengeful victims of environmental poisoning. And some are just angry.

Theo (Sasha Lane) and Xochtil (Ariela Barer) are a couple whose lifelong residence next to a Long Beach oil refinery has taken its grim toll. While suffering from leukaemia, Theo figures she has nothing left to lose, so might as well take her revenge with a bang. Accompanying them is Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), who’s tagging along for love, but, unbelievably, serves as the mission resident sceptic.

The trio link up with another frustrated radical, Shawn (Marcus Scribner), who, in turn, has recruited a pair of hippie nomads called Rowan (Kristin Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), a glib pair who turn out to be surprisingly resourceful even while you want to punch them—especially Rowan—in the nose.

Also joining the crusade is a young local rancher, Dwayne (Jake Weary), who’s out for payback from the oil company for forcing him off his ranch. Finally, their bomb chef, Michael (Forrest Goodluck), is a young Native American and wanted man who shares his explosive recipes on his own YouTube channel. He’s so frowny with nihilism, even safe practices seem to interest him little. While his comrades wax hopeful for a better world rising from the ruins, he has no interest in the future at all. He only desires to destroy the present.

The characters aren’t deep, but they’re mostly well-defined. They have little in common and even less to say to one another, but they ably subsume their differences to achieve their singular mission. (Like it or not, that’s how all politics gets done, mainstream and not). To them, the debate is over and the time for action is overdue. Time to hit the enemy where he hurts.

For all the passions on display, director Daniel Goldhaber plays a cool hand, as he and cinematographer Tehillah De Castro shoot mostly in medium and long shots, framing the characters against the desert landscape as though they were already trapped in the bleak future. The film gets another assist from a growling electronic 1980s-style score by Gavin Brivik that raises the tension.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline could easily have turned into the kind of soapbox lecture that spurs otherwise reasonable people to take the other side. Luckily, the cast keeps as tight a rein on their emotions as their director, disdaining melodramatics for believable restraint, especially Goodluck, who stands out here. Remarkably, I never felt bullied by its agenda.

Pipeline follows their mission with painstaking step-by-fashion reminiscent akin to great caper films such as Rififi (1955). (I actually wondered if the filmmakers didn’t face questioning by authorities at some point.) But while the action is meticulously laid out, other elements come up short. A subplot about a mole in the group makes no sense, while Alysha seems poorly motivated and her role in the mission, beyond the love sacrifice angle, is opaque.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is unusual in its placing of a radical leftist outlook within the inherent conservatism of genre movies, where all actions have unintended consequences (or else there’s no movie). The team makes only a few mistakes and is met with fewer obstacles. In the end, they succeed as surely as Errol Flynn and company outfoxed the Nazis in World War II propaganda movies.

Whether you accept or reject this propaganda is up to you. The film shows little concern about any possible blowback. Like all ideologues, these anarchists assume their actions will lead to predictable ends with A-to-Z logic. For those who know better, a sequel might well dramatize the point.

Like all fictional works, Pipeline is unlikely to change the minds of ostriches. That the film is a specific hymn sung to a specific choir shouldn’t keep you from seeing it. To keep on singing, choirs need movies like this, especially ones that are decently made and entertaining. This film shouldn’t take the rap for any future radical action. Our direct experience of climate change is bad enough to stir that pot.

USA | 2022 | 104 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Daniel Goldhaber.
writers: Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol & Daniel Goldhaber (based on the book by Andrea Malm).
starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary & Irene Bedard.