' ' Cinema Romantico: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Monday, June 26, 2023

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

The first time we see Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” he blows up a corner mailbox. Why? No why, no explanation, he just does, just does to rouse some rabble. Like the memorable song that accompanies his memorable entrance inside a drinking establishment, It’s a gas, man. I thought of Johnny Boy’s unthinking federal malfeasance during the opening scene of Daniel Goldhaber’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” in which Xochitl (Ariela Barer) punctures the tires of an SUV and then affixes a leaflet to the windshield heralding in big, bright letters her environmental reasons for damaging private property. And if fifty years ago, Johnny Boy blowing up the corner mailbox was just emptyheaded teenage hooliganism, we have flashed ahead fifty years to Xochitl and violent activism, though the violence in Goldhaber’s movie goes a lot further than just ruining the day of a gas guzzler. Indeed, it’s right there in the title, though it’s less a point-by-point explainer of how, exactly, to blow up a pipeline, showing bombs being made while conspicuously eliding an overt explainer, than encouragement. Based on a nonfiction book by Andreas Malm, Goldhaber, in co-writing the script with Barer and Jordan Sjol, has made something like advo-fiction, barely disguising its intent.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is essentially a heist movie in which the goal is not for a small team looking for one last score to crack a safe after crawling through air ducts but for a disparate collective of young radicals to destroy a pipeline in rural Texas to drive up the price of the oil. In this mode, it is effective, if conventional, relying upon all manner of thriller beats, from an inconvenient survey drone to a couple pipeworkers turning up at just the wrong moment. Rather, however, than finessing the literal race against time into a metaphorical race against time, Goldhaber repeatedly stops his movie in the middle of itself to flash back to each of his eight characters and how they got here. These brief scenes come across much less like snapshots of people than moving manifestos, if not also deliberately engineered. That is to say, necessitated by plot, revealing the churning gears of a mechanical exercise rather than an explosion of righteous fury, disappointingly, essentially transmuting an ostensible work of art into merely the paint and glue and mashed potatoes that activists toss onto real works of art instead. 

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