Directed by Daniel Goldhaber | Written by Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, and Jordan Sjol, based on the book by Andreas Malm | 103 min | ▲▲▲△△
A group of young and notably diverse environmental activists — who some would call terrorists — gather together in the Texas desert with enough explosives to disable key energy infrastructure. Put together like a heist thriller, the picture’s locomotive direction, editing, and clever flashback structure — allowing us to better understand the circumstances that inspired the characters — makes for a provocative, frequently gripping, and sometimes discomfiting viewing experience.
The film’s definitely going to encourage conversation around whether the eight central characters could be considered heroic, and whether the filmmakers intend to frame them that way. My initial impression is that while it isn’t necessarily an endorsement of their behaviour, the movie does sympathize with its characters enough for the audience to consider the possibility that what they’re doing is ethical.
Six of the characters come in pairs: Xotchitl (Ariela Barer, also on screenwriting duties) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner) are ideologically front and centre. Theo (Sasha Lane) and Alisha (Jayme Lawson) are a couple from Long Beach, where Theo grew up near a refinery and now she’s paying the price with a rare cancer. Alisha’s going along because she loves Theo. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lucas Gage) are a couple of partiers whose motivations are maybe a little more complicated. The last two come with parallel concerns but on their own missions: Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is frustrated over the generational legacy of indigenous lands appropriated by the government and energy companies, and Dwayne (Jake Weary) might’ve been a cowboy if he’d been born 150 years earlier, but he’s also had land taken away from him.
The heist movie bedrock means we get their planning, their delicate handling of the dangerous materials, and how they go about their mission. There’s a lot here to admire — from the intricacy and plausibility of the operation, tricky, evocative camerawork, the knife-edge editing, the terrific electronic score sitting somewhere between Vangelis and Tangerine Dream’s “Guido The Killer Pimp” from Risky Business.
In the end, though, there’s an opportunity missed here. Even though — spoiler alert — it doesn’t go entirely to plan, it’s still too clean and uncomplicated for its own good.
If this picture was really going to explore the rightness of these activists’ actions, it should’ve pushed the characters to really cross their personal lines in the sand. I was reminded of the plot machinations of another flawed but fascinating eco-thriller, The East, which in some ways did do a better job of exploring the costs of the characters’ decisions.
What if an energy company worker was hurt? How far would each of them have gone to complete their mission if that became unavoidable? What if one character’s commitment was far beyond another’s, how might that have compromised what they were doing? The frame of reference is pretty narrow, and this all could’ve been a lot more complex, which would force its audience to really grapple with the larger implications of what’s happening here. It ends up feeling weirdly anticlimactic. What was actually accomplished… and what was truly sacrificed?
How To Blow Up A Pipeline might be a little too much like a left-learning Falling Down, a genre picture with some real chops but willing to provoke without facing up to the broader consequences of the characters’ actions. It’s not a problem so much in the politics — which you can agree with or not — as much as the storytelling.