How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

In Bertrand Bonello’s 2016 political provocation Nocturama, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off a disparate series of homemade bombs in modern Paris, then await the state’s violent military response in a shopping mall.  In Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a group of young, hip domestic terrorists set off two homemade bombs along a Texan desert pipeline, then await the state’s violent military response in the hot American sand.  The Parisian kids never fully explain the reasoning behind their explosives beyond a vague sense of economic unrest & cultural ennui.  The central point of Nocturama is making its teenage dissidents look cool—which it does—before they all meet a violent end.  By contrast, the American kids explain the ideology behind their explosive Direct Actions at length, intending to disrupt the economic viability of crude oil as a means to slow down Climate Change.  The point of How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t to inform the audience how to replicate this violence ourselves, but to motivate us to get serious about Climate Change as a mass extinction event that needs to be directly, immediately combated.  Both films are structured as non-linear heist thrillers, joining their hip teen terrorists in the hours before their respective bombings before flashing back to the planning stages of those attacks.  They both function as feature-length Building the Team montages as a result, which is always the most satisfying sequence in heist movies anyway.  In contrast, the American version of Nocturama is less pretty & more explainy than the French one, but it’s also a much more useful political motivator, which counts for a lot in this context. 

Goldhaber & crew do their best to make this Lefty manifesto traditionally entertaining so that its incendiary politics ignite the widest audience possible. This was never a concern of Bonello’s, who made a provocative aesthetic object to be appreciated by a small audience of art nerds.  How to Blow Up a Pipeline uses retro synth scoring & 90s blockbuster fonts to disguise itself as a throwback to crowd-pleaser heist thrillers like Point Break, but its full-hearted advocacy of its climate activists’ property destruction is much more daring & modern than the genre’s cop-friendly past.  Most of the shocking plot twists are the exact kind of undercover, double-crossing character reveals we’re used to in that context, but the movie loudly endorses the titular bombing and the activists behind it every chance it gets.  The most Goldhaber & editor Daniel Garber shake up the traditional blockbuster heist film formula is by cutting away from explosions seconds before detonation to retreat into flashbacks, letting the tension ride for several minutes before returning to the Bruckheimerian balls of fire.  Otherwise, it works within a familiar, comforting Dad Movie story template that this time just happens to be populated by pissed-off crust punks & college campus leftists.  The tension of whether a homemade explosive will be jolted the wrong way by those nervous rioters before they reach their targeted pipeline is continuously effective in the moment, but it’s all in service of stringing the audience along to listen to the reason behind their planned property destruction in their downtime between backroom chemistry experiments.

It’s extremely shallow of me to compare Pipeline‘s cool-cred endorsement of violent political action to the much more nihilist, beauty-obsessed Nocturama, as if they’re the only two films of their kind.  There’s a wide range of uncivil unrest advocacy cinema in this movie’s lineage, from 2018’s Empty Metal to 1983’s Born in Flames to 1966’s Battle of Algiers.  It would also be shallow of me to assign an auteurist reading to its production, given that it’s officially credited as “a film by Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barar, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber” (a list that includes the director’s co-writers and aforementioned editor).  I’m going to do it anyway, though, because I’m a shallow guy.  I appreciate that some of the paranoid technophobia from Goldhaber’s debut feature Cam bled through to this follow-up, represented in Pipeline by characters’ constant awareness of being surveilled via their smartphones, even when dormant.  Still, I miss the slick, fantastical aesthetics of that indoor sex-work cyberthriller, which are traded in here for the grit & sweat of the outdoor American West.  That cinematic preference for beauty & artifice over more practical, real-world concerns is likely why Nocturama was at the forefront of my mind throughout Pipeline.  I felt as if I had already seen my ideal version of this picture in Bonello’s puzzle-box terrorist thriller, so even when admiring the big-picture politics & scene-to-scene tension of Goldhaber’s version, I could never fully crossover into zealous love for it.  It’s a consistently entertaining, ideologically solid eco-activist thriller that never fully shook me out of my cowardly complacency as a passive political thinker & pop media consumer. Or, that’s at least what I want to convey to the FBI.

-Brandon Ledet

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