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Pipeline sabotage is on the agenda in this action-packed eco-heist film

A group of activists take on climate change directly in<em> How to Blow Up a Pipeline.</em>
A group of activists take on climate change directly in How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

Back in 1975, Edward Abbey wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, a groundbreaking novel about a group of outsiders who use sabotage to stop what they see as the environmental ruination of the American Southwest. At once rambunctious and deadly serious, this wonderful book achieved something hard to imagine today: It was embraced by both left and right for its story about citizens rebelling against a system that is wrecking the world.

Nearly half a century on, Abbey's concerns feel even more urgently prescient. More and more people are frustrated by society's inability, indeed unwillingness to even slow down ecological disasters like climate change.

We meet a collection of such folks in the hugely timely new political thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline. A fictional riff on the manifesto by Andreas Malm — the most compelling argument I've read for eco-sabotage — Daniel Goldhaber's lean, sleekly made movie tells the story of a modern day monkey-wrench gang who target an oil pipeline.

The action begins with a young woman in a hoodie vandalizing an SUV and leaving a flyer that begins, "Why I sabotaged your property." Her name is Xochitl, and she's played by Ariela Barer, who co-wrote the script with Goldhaber and Jordan Sjol. Xochitl wants, she says, to attack the things that are killing us, and she becomes the catalyst for a cohort of likeminded people. As in a heist movie, we're introduced to them one by one.

It's a mixed crew that includes the Native American bomb-expert Michael; the military vet, Dwayne; the idealistic college student, Shawn; and the party-animal couple who seem to care more about sex and drugs than anything else. There's also a lesbian pair, Theo, played by Sasha Lane, and Alisha — that's Jayme Lawson — a skeptical community activist who's only come along to be with her partner, who's riddled with leukemia. She's filled with doubts about the whole enterprise.

The story itself unfolds along two tracks. On one, we follow the group's nerve wracking operation in Texas, where they check out their target, rig up explosives, and then set about doing the deed. This is intercut with flashbacks in which we learn what led each character to this drastic course of action — from Theo getting cancer from a local refinery's toxic air, to Michael's rage at how Native lands have been stolen, to Dwayne rebelling against having his 100-year-old family farm forcibly sold off to build a pipeline.

The abiding flaw of political movies is that the filmmakers are so busy promoting their beliefs they forget to make a good movie. How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn't fall into that trap. Although unabashedly partisan, it doesn't preach, glamorize the eco-saboteurs, or bore us with long discussions about ethics and tactics. Yes, the group is a little too neatly chosen to be a microcosm of America, yet the characters come alive — they're extremely well acted.

The action is tense, too. As in any scenario whose heroes must deal with explosives — I kept thinking of George Clouzot's nitroglycerin classic The Wages of Fear — the action throbs with a white-knuckle sense of danger. Even if the crew isn't blown sky-high, they face prison, even death for being terrorists.

Now, How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn't the only recent work about this kind of action. In Kim Stanley Robinson's even harder-edged The Ministry for the Future, activists use drones to down commercial airliners. Yet by movie standards it's bold. It neither condemns Xochitl and company nor does it present eco-warriors as nutjobs like Jesse Eisenberg in the film Night Moves or Alexander Skarsgård in The East. On the contrary, the flashbacks make it clear that these are not mad ideologues or parody radicals, but ordinary people whose reasons we can sympathize with.

In one of the flashbacks, a documentary filmmaker is interviewing Dwayne and his wife about losing their farm. When Dwayne asks him what he can do to help them, the filmmaker replies that what he does is tell stories that will reveal what's going on. How to Blow Up a Pipeline suggests that the time for telling stories has passed. We already know what's going on.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.