It’s a rare thing to see a truly radical film. Sure, there are films about radicals that will empathize with them in some way, but How To Blow Up A Pipeline goes a step further than that. The point of view of director/co-writer Daniel Goldhaber does sneak up on you a bit, but by the end, it’s hard to deny where his perspective lies.
In a terrific slow unwinding of a tightly twisted sheet fashion, Goldhaber spends much of the film simply presenting a group of characters that some would call terrorists and others might call revolutionaries. The fine line between the two distinctions is often discussed by the “what did I see them in?” cast. In doing so, Goldhaber allows you to internally debate whether blowing up an oil pipeline (yes, the title is literal) is an act of necessity or one of criminality, or, maybe, both.
Running a lean and mean 104 minutes, Goldhaber shifts time from the present and back with great efficiency to show that each of the eight amateur bomb builders has a reason for their disdain for fossil fuels. From losing land due to eminent domain, to being afflicted with cancer by living close to a fossil fuel plant, and simply the pure philosophical belief that if something drastic isn’t done, life on Earth as we know it is doomed.
Of course, Earth will survive our addition to oil, coal, and carbon, but at the rate we’re going, we have no chance of outlasting the cockroaches. The argument the characters in the film are making is that the typical incremental progress of our politics will be far too slow to save us. We just don’t have enough time to wait, this gang of eight has concluded.
It’s a strong, if troubling argument. Every year we see temperatures soar higher (this last Fourth of July was the hottest day in recorded history), forest fires rage, and the oceans rise. As George Carlin once said, “We’re going away, folks.” Carlin, gone some fifteen years now, is starting to look like a prophet. The trouble is, profit supersedes the need for a sustainable future.
So, in the face of the seemingly impossible odds of accomplishing legislative change at a pace that can keep up with climate change, are the eco-terrorists onto something? At one point in the film, a character points out that stopping the flow of oil in such a drastic manner will hurt poor people the most. An inarguable short term fact. But in the long, or maybe not so long term, if dying of cancer due to chemicals in the water and the air is what’s next, then maybe actions that are extreme are the only kind that will work to service the greater good.
I once interviewed Ethan Hawke for his limited series on the abolitionist John Brown, The Good Lord Bird, and when discussing Brown’s sanity (or lack thereof), Hawke made the point that in the face of insanity (in this case slavery) then maybe a different form of insanity is the only answer. Those words always stuck with me and they came to mind frequently while watching How To Blow Up A Pipeline. Because it’s hard to argue what we are doing to the planet isn’t insanity. And that maybe an equal response is the only thing that will stem the rising tide, no matter how severe that reply may be.
Am I suggesting that we should all run out and create makeshift bombs to attack the fossil fuel industry with? No. I’m not cut from that cloth. What I can say though is the farther you get into the film the more reasonable the argument gets.
I should point out that the film works as more than just a polemic. Goldhaber has wrapped his subject matter up inside a first-rate indie thriller. I’m not sure how much money was locked into the film’s budget, but not a dime was wasted. The score by Gavin Brivik has an early ‘80s Tangerine Dream vibe, the editing and camera movement are both crisp and artful, the screenplay sharp, and each of the eight actors are distinctive and affecting. How To Blow Up A Pipeline is the best indie thriller I’ve seen since Emily the Criminal.
If all the film had going for it was its theme, it might have come off preachy and didactic. Goldhaber is far too skilled and persuasive to go that route. He lets us get to know these people and see them as human beings, not symbols. You don’t have to agree with them, but only the most logic-resistant wouldn’t be able to understand them.
When the time comes to blow up the pipeline, Goldhaber stages the film’s dual (it takes two bombs to be successful) peaks expertly. Things go wrong, audibles need to be called and sacrifices need to be made. Even if you disagree completely with the actions of the characters, there can be no denying the clenched dramatic brio of the filmmaking.
As the film comes to a close, that sense of objectivity that Goldhaber holds onto for a remarkably long time slips ever so persuasively into the subjective. How To Blow Up A Pipeline takes a stand. One that will surely be found controversial to many and immoral to some.
But Goldhaber and his bracing second full-length feature (I guess I need to catch his debut, Cam, on Netflix now) have the courage of their characters’ convictions. It’s a bold statement, this film, and one that will likely have you wrestling with your own perspective well into the evening and several days after you’ve seen it, if not longer.
How To Blow Up A Pipeline is streaming now on Hulu.