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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Theo and Xochitl, now in their twenties, are lifelong companions from Long Beach, California - a city riddled with pollution from multiple oil refineries. After her mother passes away during an unexpected heatwave (one which she attributes to climate change), Xochitl decides to take matters into her own hands. Together with Theo's girlfriend Alisha and five strangers, they devise a scheme to detonate parts of an oil pipeline in West Texas. These are the kind of people who would be sufficiently motivated or reckless to risk decades in federal prison. They are all drawn together by a plan to massively disrupt the flow of oil and drive its price ruinously up.
The film's tone, pacing, and delivery evoke classic thrillers from the '70s and '80s, from the dynamic but never showy camerawork and crisp, short, flowing scenes to the retro-synth score (by Gavin Brivik) that burbles beneath expository moments, to the way the opening plunges audiences right into the action, then judiciously flashes back to fill in everyone's backstories and show the different reasons why each of them is motivated to take part in such extreme action.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is one of the most original American eco-thrillers in years. It's likely to become controversial exactly because of how it presents its central characters. They are a group of young American self-described "terrorists" trying to blow up a Texas oil pipeline to protest an array of social ills portrayed as a legitimate though troubling force for social change. The film even compares members of the group (in scenes of conversation between the characters) to revolutionaries throughout history, including the founders of the United States of America. There is an undeniable propulsive energy mixed with persuasive activist messaging throughout.
The result fuses technically proficient, impressively assured filmmaking to the urgently contemporary subject matter in ways that are rarely seen in commercial cinema. Goldhaber's film is comfortable depicting these kinds of characters in a way that lets the audience decide how to feel about them as terrorists or as saviours of the world or somewhere in between.