Mainstream filmmakers face a tricky balancing act when it comes to tackling the climate crisis and portraying those who are fighting to avert eco-catastrophe. An approach that is either too light or too po-faced risks undermining the efforts of real-life activists. Even Kelly Reichardt’s generally solid thriller Night Moves (2013) went down a hackneyed route, in which paranoia tore its characters apart.
In contrast, the electric, forthright How to Blow Up a Pipeline excels as both truly riveting entertainment and an energizing call to action, in part through the cleverness of its genre conceit: what could be a better fit for a story about collective action and fighting the system than a heist movie?
For his fictional narrative, director Daniel Goldhaber draws inspiration from Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same name. Published in 2021, Malm’s eco-manifesto explores how virtually no historically successful instance of mass popular change, such as democratic uprisings against dictatorships, has occurred without property destruction becoming part of the tactical efforts.
Taking that thesis as its cue, Goldhaber’s sharp movie follows a crew of eight young people, from various walks of life and American states, as they target two vulnerable parts of a major Texas oil pipeline with explosives. Their aim? To trap the contents and devastate the nation’s fossil-fuel industry.
No heist movie can thrive without appealing characters at the center, and this film has them in abundance. The uniformly excellent and charismatic cast includes Ariela Barer (also one of the co-writers), Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane and Lukas Gage, whose characters’ sympathetic backstories are doled out in concise flashbacks. These are expertly positioned in the story, at moments when your heart is already in your mouth.
Positing their plan as an act of self-defense, each of the activists has been radicalized by personal traumatic experiences into risking it all. The potentially convoluted time jumps never sabotage the momentum of Goldhaber and editor Daniel Garber’s nerve-shredding storytelling, which brings to mind explosive classic thrillers such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and the wild urgency of the Safdie brothers' work (Uncut Gems, et al).
And somehow, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is also a legitimately fun desert hangout movie, where it just so happens that the characters might accidentally blow themselves up at any moment.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is in cinemas from April 21. For more upcoming movies, check out our 2023 movie release dates guide.