Director: Daniel Goldhaber
Stars: Ariela Barer, Forrest Goodluck, Jayme Lawson
It can often feel like the problems of the world are too much. War. Corruption. Hanging over all, the ticking clock of climate change. Doomism sets in and a sense of helplessness in the face of tsunami-sized tasks creates depression or apathy. How to Blow Up a Pipeline – a fictional narrative inspired by Andreas Malm’s non-fiction text – aims to inspire hope in the face of overwhelming odds. It is not an act of activism in itself. And – importantly – watching it isn’t an act of activism. But it is an expertly staged piece of theatre to prompt viewers to ask themselves… am I doing enough?
Here, a group of ragtag young people step away from their disparate lives to gather in West Texas for a spot of domestic terrorism. Their target? An oil pipeline that feeds the system. Their motivations to turn to such action are feathered in through piecemeal flashbacks judiciously arranged to doll out key character information at strategic moments. Throwing us in at the deep end and weaving the hows and whys in along the way, director Daniel Goldhaber and his collaborators keep things pacy, suspenseful and admirably lean. In Pipeline, it feels like there’s not a moment to lose.
We have instigating college dropout Xochitl (Ariela Barer, also one of the film’s writers and producers), frustrated by the passive activism of her peers. Her sister Theo (Sasha Lane, American Honey), compelled to action as revenge for an illness wrought by her childhood proximity to a chemical plant. Michael (Forrest Goodluck, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a self-taught explosives YouTuber whose rage stems from marginalisation. Dwayne (Jake Weary; you recognise him from It Follows), the embittered Texan whose land the pipe has crossed. Theo’s partner Alisha (Jayme Lawson, Till, The Batman), all in for the sake of love. Shawn (Marcus Scribner, Farewell Amor), a friend and associate of Xochitl’s who shares her disillusionment. And lastly – and least trustworthy it seems – Logan (Lukas Gage, Assassination Nation) and Rowan (Kristine Forseth, The Assistant), a frequently-intoxicated couple whose aspirations seem to stem from an outsider’s urge for punkish rebellion.
It feels as though Goldhaber and Barer have managed to assemble a cast of future stars; all young yet seasoned players who might individually break big in the aftermath of this film. It’s another way in which Pipeline feels like a figurative powder keg. There’s so much good, diverse work occurring within its cast that one can’t help but imagine all of their agents finding those phones ringing off the hook. Again, the writing is incredibly savvy, revealing each of their characters in economic asides. Here actions dictate personality. We’re shown capable young people working the system to their own advantage. They know how to rig CCTV from the backend system. They know not to trust cell phones. The hyper-connectivity of their lives has trained them to be aversive. It has also shown them how to use modern communication tools (the internet, broadly) to their advantage.
And so a kind of heist movie plays out, adhering to genre tricks and staples to engender something thrilling and relatable to mainstream audiences. This can’t have been an easy movie to get bankrolled. It is insistently political, pointedly left-wing; the end result feels remarkably unfiltered. In it’s fealty to showing rather than telling, it feels akin to Kelly Reichardt’s similarly themed eco-terrorism potboiler Night Moves (a personal favourite of mine), but Pipeline also differs significantly. It doesn’t feel as gloomy or defeatist as Reichardt’s tense yet resigned movie. Here idealism is given lift through the very act of participation. It’s core seven feel aspirational; manifesting a destiny. Several key moments necessitate a communal effort. In these scenes especially, Pipeline reflects its own making. The collaborative spirit of independent film is not just happening behind the camera. It’s on the screen.
Toward the end, one reveal arrives with just a hint of contrivance; something less-than-likely that’s been peppered in for the purpose of giving us a twist or about-turn. It’s a fun part of the narrative journey, but it’s also a rare moment where one senses the machinery exposed. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t register hard enough to count as a complaint, and if it is a weakness it’s the only one this viewer discovered. Goldhaber impressed greatly with his Netflix Original gem Cam (a horror reworking of Isa Mazzei’s memoir Camgirl), yet there’s a clear sense of evolution in his craft this time around, and in the assistance he receives from other quarters (Daniel Garber’s editing work is razor sharp). Like the narrative it weaves, Pipeline oozes (sorry) a sense of grassroots collaboration. Many of the cast are also credited producers, and there’s a punchiness that harkens back to ’70s indie work; not just the gumption of getting out there and doing, but the pulpiness of the product, too.
Goldhaber, Barer and co-writer Jordan Sjol have their own manifesto here. A prompt to casual viewers, and to the wider film industry too, leading by example. Desperation will engender real-world acts of sabotage in the fight against climate change. Commensurate to those decisions, Pipeline will inspire conversations about how to participate in positive activism, local activism, and it’ll inspire those picking up cameras to use their wits and wherewithal to get new movies made.
Some films are said to capture the zeitgeist thanks to their ear for idioms. Others for presciently commenting on new forms of communication. How to Blow Up a Pipeline feels different. It feels like the start of a revolution.
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