TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new political thriller "How To Blow Up A Pipeline," a motley band of crusaders decides to go after the oil industry in Texas. The movie's inspired by an influential book by the Swedish activist Andreas Malm. Our critic-at-large John Powers says "How To Blow Up A Pipeline," which is now in theaters, is a surprisingly bold look at feelings that are very much of our moment.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in 1975, Edward Abbey wrote "The Monkey Wrench Gang," a groundbreaking novel about a group of outsiders who used sabotage to stop what they see as the environmental ruination of the American Southwest. At once rambunctious and deadly serious, this wonderful book achieves 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 a 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 like-minded 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 and Alisha, a skeptical community activist who's only come along to be with her leukemia-riddled partner. 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 - be it 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.
Here, early on, Xochitl and Shawn, played by Marcus Scribner, ponder how to do something that might actually shake the oil industry.
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MARCUS SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) The refinery? No.
ARIELA BARER: (As Xochitl) Why?
SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) What do you mean, why? It's way too big. We could end up killing somebody or causing an ecological disaster.
BARER: (As Xochitl) Sabotage is messy.
SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) Yeah, but we can't give the public a reason to invalidate us. What about destroying, like, a coal truck route or damaging roads or...
BARER: (As Xochitl) That's lame. We have to do something that would scare people.
SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) What? Do you want to, like, kidnap an oil exec or blow up a private jet? What?
BARER: (As Xochitl) We have to show how vulnerable the oil industry is by hitting something big, like a refinery.
SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) What about Texas? That's where they set oil price benchmarks. If we cut off their supply or destroyed something even relatively small, it would really disrupt [expletive].
BARER: (As Xochitl) What do you know about Texas?
SCRIBNER: (As Shawn) I mean, what do you know about building a bomb?
POWERS: The abiding flaw of political movies is that the filmmakers are so busy promoting their beliefs that 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 American, yet the characters come alive. They're extremely well-acted. And 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 novel "The Ministry Of 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 Skarsgard 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 show what's going on. "How To Blow Up A Pipeline" suggests that the time for telling stories is past. We already know what's going on.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "How To Blow Up A Pipeline."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against Fox News alleging Fox hosts and commentators knowingly made false statements about voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, including false claims about Dominion voting machines. The trial is expected to begin next week. We'll talk with Jeremy Peters of The New York Times. He says this is the highest-profile case so far to test whether allies of Trump would be held accountable for spreading falsehoods about the election. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBERTO IGLESIAS' "COMANDANTE I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.