It’s interesting to think about how this environmentalist action-thriller by Daniel Goldhaber relates to the book it’s based on; Andreas Malm’s work of nonfiction traces the histories of many social justice movements to endorse property destruction as a valid political tool. This movie feels not like an adaptation, but an homage to those ideas. Rather than the book’s enormous, historical scope, the film focuses on a small group of activists sabotaging a pipeline in Texas to fight against Big Oil. I’ve been excited about this ever since first seeing the trailer, and wasn’t too disappointed. Something’s always lost in adaptation, and that’s no different here, perhaps to a harmful degree. Despite its uniquely sympathetic portrayals of ecoterrorism, some important aspects of Malm’s book are missing from this movie, which has an effect on its ideas vs its praxis, at times fetishizing violence. Despite these shortcomings, this heart-stopping, socially-aware movie is a joy to watch.
I think the cast did a wonderful job bringing the script to life. Each character represents the effects of the oil industry, suffering chronic illness, climate disasters and even land sovereignty. Forrest Goodluck’s performance as Michael was simmering, stoic, delivering his lines with an almost deadpan affect that belies just how passionate he is about the group’s mission. I also think Ariela Barer’s role as Xochitl is noteworthy for the commitment she brought to every scene, showing an impressive emotional range that always remained subtle; and Jake Weary’s character, Dwayne, was fascinating for how different his grizzled rural farmer was from the college students and seasoned activists who comprised the rest of the group. Together, these actors introduce some really compelling group dynamics that endear us to them and their cause even more. This is particularly effective when coupled with how well-crafted the aesthetics are.
While the visuals may be subtle, I think this straightforward approach suits the frankness of its political message. This film would have lacked intensity if its cinematography leaned too far into the expressive. The camera’s often still, stable. Instead of intricate shots, it relies more on rapid editing to quicken the pacing. That being said, Director of Photography Tehillah De Castro makes great use of this style with shot composition. Characters are frequently shown against industrial backdrops to better capture the confrontation between working people and harmful industries that profit off of them. Usually, these factories are set against painterly skies, providing a bit of contrast to the shot, as if showing what these characters are fighting against vs what they’re fighting for, which is something the script seems to have forgotten.
What makes Malm’s book so effective was how it showed the importance of violence in the fight for women’s suffrage, overthrowing dictatorships and dismantling apartheid. Because the movie has so many characters, and takes the time to go into each activist’s backstory via flashbacks, it leaves itself very little room to answer perhaps the most important question hanging over this film: it’s one thing to merely destroy things, but what are these activists fighting for? What alternatives will they present when the system crumbles, and how will they get public support for said alternatives? The movie itself acknowledges the complexity of these questions when one activist notes how their actions will cause oil prices to rise, which will just hurt working people; but the script seems to dismiss these legitimate concerns when someone responds that “we aren’t interested in rebuilding anything,” making it clear destruction itself is the point. To me, that’s what makes this movie far less radical than its marketing team would have you believe. It’s similar to Athena (2022) in that it shows what made these revolutionaries angry enough to join the cause, yet forgets Che’s famous words that “the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.” It’s not enough to focus on the violence.
Despite these shortcomings, I was kept on the edge of my seat from start to finish. The pacing makes this viewing experience anxiety-inducing in the best of ways. It’s full of interesting characters, and is the most scathing political thriller we’re likely to get for years to come. Catch How to Blow Up a Pipeline in theaters near you! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!