Radical movies rarely earn appreciation in their time. Yet those that tap into the zeitgeist become harbingers of ideologies and things to come. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, based on the book by Andreas Malm feels like a warcry. The story speaks volumes for those wanting change faster than the government can work. For anyone else, the story portends radical movements springing up among young activists. No matter where you sit on the ideological spectrum, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an essential film in 2023.
After a death in the family, young activist Xochitl (Ariela Barer) no longer believes in half-measures. With climate disasters increasing in frequency, now is the time to act. She recruits two friends to help build a team. Childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane) recruits girlfriend and tech specialist (Jayme Lawson). Xochitl’s college friend Shawn (Marcus Scribner) finds specialists Michael (Forrest Goodluck) and Dwayne (Jake Weary). Finally, Portland-based radicals Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) round out the team. They travel to Texas, determined to slow down the oil industry through disruption.
Utilizing the visual language and structure of heist films, How to Blow Up a Pipeline feels like you’ve been shot out of a canon. The pacing kicks off a tension-filled 100 minutes and never takes its foot off the pedal. Director Daniel Goldhaber ramps up the emotional toll on his characters but forces them to remain diligent in the moment. He explores each backstory in short flashbacks but, like a heist flick, holds the complete story until the opportune moment.
The craft of Goldhaber’s team cannot be ignored either. The pulse-pounding score from Gavin Brivik kicks into high gear during the scariest moments. The cross-cutting of backstory and present tension impresses, and editor Daniel Garber helps set the masterful tone. The fluid camera from DP Tehillah De Castro captures the desolate landscape with beauty while also peeking into moments of extreme intimacy. This film features brilliance in front of and behind the camera, and How to Blow Up a Pipeline soars because of it.
Baer steps into the lead role, but as co-writer and producer, she wears multiple hats. As a performer and writer, she allows her ensemble to flourish. Every character gets a moment or beat that exemplifies their personal ideology. With Goldhaber and co-writer Jordan Sjol, the trio finds unique motivations and paths to this outcome. How to Blow Up a Pipeline intricately plots out the diverse paths we take to extremist action. Yet even more importantly, it seeks to build a cross-cultural coalition to create drastic change across sociopolitical lines.
The cast thrives with this diversity. There is not one weak link between them. Lane brings another emotionally devasting turn as a woman struggling with her health, love, and disintegrating ties to her home. Weary surprises with his stoicism and crafts the most complicated man of the bunch. Goodluck radiates his anger with precision. His self-hate and struggle manifest in unhealthy methods, but Goodluck still turns an angry young man into a sympathetic loner.
Scribner breaks out of his black-ish persona and settles into a movie-star-style performance. Gage and Froseth illuminate the screen with Bonnie and Clyde energy while barely holding onto their emotions. Yet the real powerhouse performance comes from Lawson. She displays love and loss throughout How to Blow Up a Pipeline. While she appears strong for her friends and lover, she crumbles at the thought that she does not matter. Lawson brings tragedy to the narrative and becomes the most intriguing screen presence from her first scenes on camera.
Perhaps most impressive, How to Blow Up a Pipeline never pulls punches. It wants us to see the radicalization and missteps of our characters. These are the moments that lead to pain and suffering. Each character gets moments to shine. They each come off as unhinged radicals in other moments. The truth lies somewhere in between. What matters more is that each holds a personal motivation for their journey. The world may change due to their actions, but that initial spark of hope lights the fuse to do something drastic.
Films like How to Blow Up a Pipeline rarely get made anymore. Yet this one not only exists as an incredible document of this moment but shines bright as a masterful thriller. With impeccable performances, razor-sharp writing, and brilliant direction, How to Blow Up a Pipeline will be one of the best films of 2023, no matter when we look back. A film as angry, philosophical, and brilliant as this might be the most important document in understanding America at this time.