Eco-terrorism as self defense in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline”

"How to Blow Up a Pipeline." (Photo Courtesy of NEON)

The activists, two of them queer, at the center of the arresting drama “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” want to create an action that calls attention to the dangers of climate change. The film, opening April 14 in Philadelphia and directed and cowritten by Daniel Goldhaber, is certainly on the side of the “terrorists” — which the group dubs itself — since very little space is given to other viewpoints. That may be frustrating for viewers who want a more even handed approach to environmental activism, but “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is all about picking fights and achieving its agenda, and it does both with aplomb.

One of the ringleaders is Xochitl (out actress Ariela Barer, who cowrote the film, based on Andreas Malm’s manifesto). In the opening scene, she punctures tires on a car and leaves a flier that reads, “Why I sabotaged your property,” she is the nature of her radicalism. She assembles seven other like-minded folks who gather at a house in Texas with a plan to sabotage an oil pipeline, justifying their action as a form of self-defense. 

The story crosscuts between the preparations for the action and their backstories. The contemporary scenes are best. Watching the characters change a pair of gloves when they spill acid or clean up a site to ensure no DNA can be traced to any of the participants is involving. Everyone is committed to the action, but the backstories reveal different levels of investment.

One of the most exciting scenes features a character building a bomb the group will use — and not just because there is a fifty percent chance that they may blow themselves up. When an explosion does occur, however, the action flashes back to draw out the tension, which feels manipulative. 

Xochitl’s story forms the seed of the plan: she wants to do something disruptive to scare people and create immediate awareness rather than play the long game of activism that relies on incremental change. She insists that folks will take things more seriously if there are consequences. While there are ideas floated that destroying the pipeline will raise oil prices and ultimately punish the poorest consumers rather than the corporations, Xochitl is looking to get a message across and is joined by those who share her ideology.

Another activist, Theo (out actress Sasha Lane), is suffering from acute myeloid leukemia, having grown up near chemicals. Her struggle with her disease is interesting not just in her ways of dealing with it — attending meetings where she is able to process her emotions — but also because it prompts her reasons for wanting to lash out at the pipeline. Her girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is loyal to her, and their scenes lying in bed together are sweet. That said, Alisha has reservations about some of the decisions Theo and Xochitl are making.  

In contrast, Michael (Forrest Goodluck, who costarred with Lane in the gay conversation camp film, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”), is mad as hell. In North Dakota, he picks fights with white men who come for work. When he connects with the group, he is able to channel his anger and energy into something he finds meaningful. 

Likewise, Dwayne (Jake Weary) wants to fight back against a system that is crushing him and his family. He connects with Xochitl’s friend Shawn (Marcus Scribner) whom he meets when Dwayne is being filmed for a documentary project. Shawn uses the opportunity to connect with folks who can support his and Xochitl’s cause. 

Rounding out the crew are Logan (out actor Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth). This couple at first appear to be outsiders, with Logan irritating Dwayne, and Rowan sneaking off to pee in the bushes and surreptitiously photographing Theo and Alisha with her phone. A flashback reveals what Rowan is up to, and it is unsurprising, and the weakest storyline in the film. 

Even if the characters are rather thinly drawn — most are defined by their “issue” — it is hard not to care about them. The film gets viewers invested in wanting the gang to succeed in their mission because they are operating with noble intentions, even if their approach is criminal. The characters are ingratiating as they drink and bond the night before their action because their camaraderie feels real. The ensemble cast is uniformly strong and likable. 

As the activists work towards their goal, however, Goldhaber cannot resist ratcheting up the tension with setbacks, including an injury, or the unexpected appearance of a drone. He also cuts away from the big set piece when letting things just play out in real time might have been more effective. But these are minor complaints. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is mostly satisfying because it is focused on action and not bogged down by political preaching. It might even prompt some activism.

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