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Film Review: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

From good ol’ Greta Thunberg and Fridays For Future, to the soup-throwing, SVU-fighting stunts seen last year, young people are solidifying themselves as the most proactive and powerful forces against the climate crisis. It’s fitting, then, that Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline centres on a group of young people taking matters into their own hands and plotting to (you guessed it) blow up a pipeline. Their foray into direct action isn’t without its risks but, sick of endless doom-scrolling and passive action, they’re ready to take a stand.

Set primarily in West Texas, an area known for its oil production, the group comes together in an abandoned house, many of them meeting for the first time. With no time for small talk, they get stuck right in prepping all the materials for the big day. The film is very open with the specifics of the plan, going into detail on where to target the pipeline to prevent a spill, and showing the step-by-step assembly of the bombs, including how and where to place the blast caps and charges – it’s honestly a surprise they weren’t forced to tone it down a bit.

In classic heist movie fashion, we get flashbacks of the motivations and skills that tie this ragtag bunch together. Jumps through time can often disrupt the flow of a film and dispel the tension, but editor Daniel Garber makes it look easy. Each cut is meticulously timed, and the two timelines are intricately woven together, revealing just the right amount of information at exactly the right time to keep us hooked. To be able to elicit an audible gasp from the audience is a feat of its own, but to do it more than once is a credit to Garber’s talent.

The diversity of the group and their stories creates a picture of the real-life effects felt across America. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is an Indigenous American from North Dakota where fracking flames burn at night and water sources are contaminated, Theo (Sasha Lane) has cancer caused by growing up near chemical plants and oil refineries, and Dwayne (Jake Weary) had his home bought out via eminent domain to build the titular pipeline.

These experiences are drawn from real people and in Q&A after the Glasgow Film Festival screening, Goldhaber gave credit to the people whose personal stories shaped the script. The effort to engage with those actually affected by the climate crisis can be felt throughout and plays a big part in the power of the films messaging.

Based on Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, fills in some gaps that the book was criticised for by exploring the risks and repercussions of this form of action. The film offers a counterbalance to the pro-property sabotage stance of both Malm and most of the cast, most notably through Jayme Lawson’s character Alisha. Girlfriend to Theo, Alisha is a reluctant contributor, raising concerns about the ethics and efficacy of the group’s plan. Including this point of view prevents the film from becoming a piece of propaganda, and instead is a valuable vehicle for dialogue and debate.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is undoubtedly one of the most exciting upcoming releases. At its core, it asks the viewer to consider what tactics are justified or necessary when faced with environmental destruction, and whether you agree with blowing up a pipeline or not, you’ll get something from giving it a watch.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline showed at Glasgow Film Festival 2023, and will be out in cinemas from 21st April

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