Daniel Goldhaber’s Film Is Magnificent

Apr 7, 2023

This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

From a drowning Pakistan being battered by floods to a burning California being consumed by fire, the world as we know it is dying an agonizing death. The people least responsible for creating the crisis, the poor and disenfranchised, will be the first to bear the brunt of the brutality of a warming planet. This is not just a looming future threat, it is already here.

It is in this precipitous decline that Cam director Daniel Goldhaber’s incisive and incendiary How to Blow Up a Pipeline emerges as a work that shows the next stage of the fight against annihilation. Operating in the vein of films like Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, it undertakes a searing new excavation of the raw nerve that comes from living in the shadow of death for so long. It is a painful yet poetic cinematic portrait of a committed group of people willing to risk everything to move the needle, providing a window into a future where sabotage to save all that we have left is all but inevitable.
This all may sound rather bleak, but anything less would fall short of the reality of our present predicament as well as the source material on which it is based. To call it an adaptation of the manifesto of the same name by Andreas Malm, which itself is worth reading as a beast all its own, would be to understate its accomplishments. Inevitably, much of the analysis and insights the author provided must get sanded down. Ideas are condensed into conversations that, while fleeting, remain both evocative and effective at establishing what is at stake.

What it then does is put into practice how the central idea Malm put forth would take shape and synthesize the radical imagination at the core of his argument. The fact that the book itself makes a quick appearance for characters to briefly discuss in a bookstore before pointing out that it doesn’t actually tell you how to do the sabotage is instructive in understanding its launching off point. It is a meticulously constructed heist film where what is being stolen is not money, but the opposite. It is a stealing back of salvation for the future. They will attempt to, true to the title, blow up a pipeline at several points in West Texas.

Image via TIFF

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Undertaking this mission is an ensemble cast that are as distinct and well-realized as any you will see this year. All are different, coming from various walks of life, but are united in an acute understanding of the devastation that faces the downtrodden. There is the leader of sorts in Xochitl, played with poise by Ariela Barer who also co-wrote the film along with Goldhaber and Jordan Sjol. She represents the tip of the sabotage spear, but each character is crucial to creating a coalition. Of course, this means any one of them falling short could doom the rest.

There is Michael, whose intensity is brought to life by a fantastic Forrest Goodluck, the bomb expert. There is Theo, captured by the underrated Sasha Lane, and her partner Alisha, fully embodied by Jayme Lawson, as well as the less-disciplined though undeniably authentic romantic duo of Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth). Rounding out the team is Shawn (Marcus Scribner) who brings along Dwayne (Jake Weary) after meeting him in the process of making a hollow documentary. This itself demonstrates Goldhaber’s awareness of his own role as filmmaker and the limited impact he can really have in making change.

What binds the characters together is how they have all exhausted going about the fight in the “right way.” They have protested and lobbied only to be ignored as the wheels of death keep spinning. Any supposed legal remedies have been rendered useless as profit gets put before all else. They have endured devastating losses of loved ones from sudden heat waves and are themselves suffering from the impacts of pollution taking place right next door.

Goldhaber observes this with the patience necessary so that, even as the film is all about the ratcheting tension of the plan, we never lose sight of their humanity. The repeated way he will flash back when things go awry to trace how all the characters got there instills everything with a somber sensibility. There is no glory or thrill in what they are trying to do as all they have had to endure has made it a necessity. None of them enter into this lightly and the film sits with the suffocating fear. They could blow themselves up if they get a single detail wrong.

Many tense sequences where they construct and place the bombs makes this danger feel crushingly real. There is also the terrifying possibility that they could fail altogether and still face life in prison. The details of the plan are solid, though they can’t control every possible variable as there is so much that can and does go wrong. Yet this willingness to risk it all is precisely the point. For each of them to face down all of these risks and still go through with their attempt is the reality they have been locked into. When all other options for change have been foreclosed to them, this is the result. None of the characters have any illusions about this fixing everything, but they draw from Malm’s central thesis about the critical value of radical action operating in tandem with all they had been doing previously.

In service of this, Goldhaber and cinematographer Tehillah De Castro delicately eschew how we typically visualize a heist. They do so in a measured manner that prevents anything from feeling too slick or sensationalized, making use of more focused framing whose simplicity feels more authentic especially when intertwined with a tactile score. It leans away from being flashy to instead focus on the feelings of every moment. While there is one sequence where a so-so effect would have been better off taking place off-screen, it passes quickly enough. It all makes for a film that is both expansive and concentrated, tackling one of the most pressing questions facing people today in the confines of a two-day sabotage operation.

Image via NEON

There are certain to be political discussions about the work itself, as well as the critical response to it, and the ways it may have had to compromise so as to have broader appeal. Any such concerns about the nature of this cinematic approach are healthy as radical works being adapted for mass appeal should still be met with rigorous reflection. However, for all the ways it may have been limited by a need to appeal to a more general audience enough to get in front of them, the ideas it smuggles into what is essentially a genre film represent a boldness that exceeds most any American production of the last decade. With its strong character work that gets interwoven with a striking story of sabotage, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a riveting tapestry of the plight facing the modern climate justice movement.

Rating: A

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is in theaters starting April 7.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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