Film and filmmaking are not just a medium and a process in writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline; they are also a weapon and a revolutionary act.
HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
In loosely adapting the 2021 nonfiction book by Swedish academic Andreas Malm into an apocalyptic Western/Prairie thriller, Goldhaber follows in the footsteps of Richard Linklater, who did a similar though far less inspired transformation of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2006. Goldhaber — a Colorado-born filmmaker whose first movie 2018’s Cam, was a psychological horror film set in the world of online sex work — is not looking to calmly convert hearts and minds to his world view. He deploys his photogenic troop of actors to urgently address the fact that the polite measures many of us engage in — recycling, using public transportation, bringing our own bags to the store — are not meeting the deadly realities of our moment.
The action unfolds like a heist movie. While working as a boom-mike operator on a well-meaning but toothless environmental documentary, Shawn — also the nominal leader of a loosely affiliated group of disaffected activists — recruits Wayne to complete a momentous act of monkeywrenching the gang has undertaken. Wayne is a native Texan who has been eminent-domained from his family land by a state government that has conflated oil company interests with its own. Aided by his dirt-caked pickup and a cooler full of deer meat, Wayne lends the city slicker activists his expert knowledge of the terrain and the pipeline of the title, which has transformed what was once ranch land into the bile belching liver of an economy that sucks its vitality from fossil fuel.
The devastating effects of that addiction don’t simply serve as character motivation in How to Blow Up a Pipeline; they color every grubby frame of Goldhaber’s film. We see this in flashbacks that unpack the characters’ backstories. In Long Beach, California, oil rigs tower over some chit chat after a funeral, where Xochitl (played by Marvel’s Runaways Ariela Barer, who also co-wrote the Pipeline script) reconnects with her childhood best Theo (American Honey’s Sasha Lane), after the sudden loss of her mother, who died in a heatwave. (Theo is later revealed to also be suffering from terminal cancer brought on by the toxic environment where she lives.) In North Dakota, flimsy boomtown hovels litter the oil fields where Michael (a twitchy Forrest Goodluck, who also executive produces), fed up with the pace of old-school activism has embraced his inner Crazy Harry and taken to blowing things up. Michael records his explosive experiments and shares them on social media — a connection back to the radical intentions of Goldhaber’s own film. How to Blow Up a Pipeline both fully embraces its agitprop roots while also transcending them.
Goldhaber has made one of the most exigent and vital cinematic statements in recent memory. The gritty images, shot by DP Tehillah De Castro, will resurface in your frontal lobe with every new story of devastating tornadoes and torrential floods. In the hands of Goldhaber and editor Daniel Garber, the character flashbacks don’t hamper the relentless tick-tock structure, they increase its clamorous propulsion.
Shawn is played with a softly rendered rage by Black-ish’s Marcus Scribner, but not every performance from Pipeline’s captivating ensemble of up-and-comers is equal to the film’s imperativeness, and some of the character relationships feel as expendable as the explosive-carrying barrels central to the movie’s plot. Still, by melding the real-world stakes we live and die with every day to a cinematic vision that enhances and contextualizes them, Goldhaber’s film brings to mind Gilberto Pontecorvo’s 1966’s de-colonial masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. Both are passionate reflections of desperate moments forged in the fiery disasters of our own making. Now we all get to pretend that How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s dire warnings and incendiary truth-telling have not come far too late.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.