Saturday 29 April 2023

The big bang: "How to Blow Up a Pipeline"

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
 is Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves retooled for more immediate thrills, and the possibility of bigger, louder bangs yet. Falling in stride with a rainbow coalition of concerned young Americans as they descend on West Texas - oil country - with direct action in mind, Daniel Goldhaber's film initially comes off as a touch diffuse and withholding. We join the group in the middle of enacting their latest, ambitious counterattack, and only get flashes of backstory - how each of them got here, why they're doing this - at critical junctures in the operation. These are brisk and to the point; there's always a clock somewhere, ticking or counting down. One activist (American Honey's Sasha Lane, the most recognisable of these fresh faces) has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and so has arguably less to lose in making a mark or a stand. About the buzzcut-sporting, military-looking dude (Jake Weary), we learn even less, save that the oil company has been threatening to occupy his farmland, and that he really seems to enjoy expectorating into bottles. (His loaded holster, at least, betrays him as someone with access to the heavy-duty weaponry one might need to overturn the status quo.) A scattering of names across the screen; no pack drill. Yet the film has been shrewdly adapted, appearing to have internalised a non-fiction book (by the Swedish author Andreas Malm) that might in other hands have served as the basis for documentary. I wouldn't advise seeing How to Blow Up a Pipeline if you were looking for specific, step-by-step instruction on how to assemble a bomb. (It's false advertising, in that respect.) Yet the characters here all seem to have read, absorbed and clung to the information Malm was disseminating. It feels like the kind of well-thumbed tome the authorities might find among these kids' belongings, stuffed down in a badly charred backpack, should things not go according to plan.

The Reichardt film was finally defined by the characteristic ambivalence of its maker: she was sympathetic to her activists up to a point, but even then tended to regard them as muddled, overly suggestible, more than a little lost. Goldhaber, by contrast, never doubts his protagonists' motives; he takes them for given, which is one reason the new film is both more straightforward and more immediately involving. (Reichardt's film was surveillance; Goldhaber's is embedded reportage.) Several years further down the line, climate action is now a pressing enough concern that it can draw in not just the Trustafarian crusties of eco-warrior stereotype, but passing thrillseekers (represented here by Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth as a post-Greta Bonnie and Clyde, so turned on by their task they make out at one extraction site), online malcontents, and even grown-ups as diverse as Weary's terse homesteader and Léa Seydoux's mum in the recent One Fine Morning; it may be the one issue on which bipartisan consensus remains possible. (Whether you want to plant seeds or a flag, you still need a planet.) Goldhaber's collective want to do the right thing, and have the energy, resources and willingness to do it, but they're up against a system that has long known how to minimise disruption, even as it maximises destruction. They also display an enforced restlessness that can only make us jittery whenever they're found mixing chemicals or transporting drumfuls of ammonia. The film around them is quietly efficient, establishing personalities and schisms in the ranks without undue showboating or speechifying, and gradually converting one small act of resistance into a matter of life and death. With each lurch towards the objective of the title, Goldhaber lays out his own carefully articulated position on activism. It can be haphazard, yes, and often as messy as loosing soup on a Van Gogh or powder paint on pristine Crucible baize. It may also be the most urgent thing any of us ever do as the world burns.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is now showing in selected cinemas.

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