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‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ review: High stakes, high tension, and the question of change on the line

A group of young people impacted by climate change come together to change the conversation in a radical act.

Neon Pictures

How far would you go to draw attention to a cause you care about? Would you put everything on the line for it? It’s a question many people jostle with inside the crevices of their being. Scientists have warned us about how climate change can and will impact the world. Despite urgent headlines highlighting how the polar ice caps are melting and a vast swath of extreme weather – there is so much at work to lull everybody to accept this as an inevitable part of our lives. This is not a problem for eight fictitious eco-activists feeling like the world is not catching up to the moment's urgency.

They see an uninhabitable future and, in some cases, have been directly impacted by various means of climate disasters in the present. How To Blow Up A Pipeline, the film that draws from Andreas Malm’s non-fiction opus shows what happens when young people with convictions come together in a small town in Texas. Director Daniel Goldhaber’s film is tense, straightforward, and dabbles in the moral quandary of what it means to take action.

At first glance, some people might discount Pipeline as an advertisement for eco-terrorism. That’s not the case, as the characters battle with the prospects of doing the act and who it will affect. Much credit to co-writers Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, and Jordan Sjol that the moral heaviness can be discussed tangibly. Oil companies operate within a general amount of shadiness and often escape accountability for catastrophes.

Neon

However, the economy is still highly dependent on fossil fuels. Interruptions to that source will negatively impact the most vulnerable populations first. The characters wrestle with this notion and ultimately agree that this message must be heard most. Otherwise, we’ll continue in this supply, demand, and ultimate destruction hamster wheel. It takes a small fire to ignite an inferno, which started within Xochitl (Arila Barer) – whose mother tragically passes away from a freak storm. The first instance of Pipeline shows her slashing the tires of an SUV and putting a note on the windshield with the title, “Why I Destroyed Your Property,” with a mission statement. While in a climate activist group, Xochitl has grown impatient at the snail-like pace of everything and decides things must take a more bombastic turn.

This feeling is only heightened by her childhood friend Theo's (Ariela Barer) terminal leukemia diagnosis due to living near a refinery. There is a scene where Theo recalls a time when she and Xochitl played outside as kids and were burned by acid rain. Everybody has a different entry point for why they’ve advanced on an abandoned house in North Texas. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is a documentarian who wants to go beyond just chronicling the detriments of climate change. Dwayne (Jack Weary) is furious that the land he and his pregnant wife owned was taken by eminent domain to build a pipeline. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are a couple who embrace chaos at all costs – although there’s another reason for their inclusion.

Neon

Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is a Native American fed up with the constant intrusion of outsiders integrating themselves on tribal lands. Alisha (Jayme Lawson), Theo’s girlfriend, goes along but provides some pushback to the plan. She questions the validity of who chooses that a blunt display of power is better than incremental steps. It’s a pensive deferral to the breakneck speed in which How To Blow Up A Pipeline operates – no matter what, there will always be a loser. The only question is whether the short-term pain is worth getting to the root of the problem.

Goldhaber provides a step-by-step look at what this plan would be. It’s meticulous, difficulties aplenty, and possibilities this demonstration will not work at all. It gives the film suspense, while the flashbacks provide additional context on how we got here. Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro's camera work offers an otherwise espionage thriller a grainy, almost documentarian-like feel.

If anything, How To Blow Up A Pipeline gives a personal spin on urgent issues – even if the characters don’t exist. The kick is that they could and probably do live in our real world.