movie review

How to Blow Up a Pipeline Picks a Fight

Photo: Courtesy of NEON

A group of 20-somethings sits around late at night, drinking, smoking, and talking about philosophy. The vibe is college dorm with the group grumbling about “the Man” as much as sharing their dreams for the future. The normalcy of all this is exactly what How to Blow Up a Pipeline intends, so when the revelers shift their relationship from acquaintances to comrades, their discussion from theoretical to practical, and their self-identification from activists to terrorists, we understand the conditions that created them. When one character jokes to another that the events of the film are their “origin story,” How to Blow Up a Pipeline sets up its binary: Those who enable, profit from, and turn a blind eye to climate change are on one side, and those willing to do something — anything — to stop that destruction are on the other. How to Blow Up a Pipeline wants to pick a fight, and it does so with an appealing lack of artifice, its heart on its sleeve and its agenda in its punching fists.

In the book of the same name that inspired this film, author Andreas Malm writes about how capitalism trains us to “fear for the loss of property” and care more for “the balance sheet and budget, not the body.” In that kind of system, Malm wonders, what do terrorism, vandalism, and destruction accomplish, and when do they become ethically justified? Malm places climate change in a historical timeline with other violent and nonviolent movements and analyzes the efficacy and ideology of various ecologically minded organizations. That frame is helpful for getting on the wavelength of this adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, but reading the book (whose bright-orange cover makes a cameo in the movie) beforehand is not a requirement; the film, directed and co-written by Daniel Goldhaber, says enough on its own. (Do read it after, though, along with Kim Stanley Robinson’s similarly concerned novel The Ministry for the Future.)

How to Blow Up a Pipeline the movie is not as backward-looking as the book: It takes place primarily over a couple of days and uses flashbacks to flesh out how its characters, all affected by the ruinous effects of resource mining, pollution, and industrialization, decided to come together for a pipeline-destruction “project” in West Texas. But what the book and the film share is an idea, argued by Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth, that “violence is a cleansing force”: “It rids the colonized of their inferiority complex, of their passive and despairing attitude. It emboldens them and restores their self-confidence.” Other films about the ecological struggle, like Zal Batmanglij’s The East and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves, have considered whether collective action can ever escape moral decay, whether violence in service of a common goal will inevitably have a human toll. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, meanwhile, is uninterested in what could be construed as defeatism. Goldhaber insists that the film “is asking you to empathize with this act, to understand and experience blowing up a pipeline. It’s not saying, ‘Hey, you, audience member, go out and do this.’”

But the film’s final shot and the message it imparts to the audience — as well as the 103 preceding minutes that treat the characters’ struggle as a worthy one — complicate that distinction. Taken literally, the title of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a misnomer; it doesn’t function as a step-by-step, documentary-like explainer of which chemicals to mix together or how to wire an explosive device. What its camera does linger on are these characters’ typed-up manifestos, handwritten journal entries, and livestreamed videos explaining their motivations, and the time the film gives to those opinions is a persistent nudge that belies what Goldhaber might say. How to Blow Up a Pipeline has the self-awareness to know that certain viewers might find the film’s tacit justification of its central action naïve, so it builds in that skepticism (a member of the group who is warier than her allies voices her concern about whether what they do will make a difference) in order to argue against it. Appeasement isn’t what the other characters, or the film itself, have in mind, and there’s persuasive confidence in How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s provocation.

The film describes itself as “part high-stakes heist,” and that explains the script’s focus on planning and process. Yet where other heist films follow central characters as they organize a robbery, the focus here is on those who’ve already had things stolen from them — their health, their family, their future. The group includes Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an Indigenous man banned from an oil refinery near his North Dakota home for heckling its workers; childhood friends Xochitl (Ariela Barer, a co-writer of the film) and Theo (Sasha Lane), the former orphaned because of an extreme weather event and the latter sickened by growing up in the shadow of a chemical plant; Theo’s girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson), distraught over Theo’s terminal diagnosis; Xochitl’s college classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a documentarian unfulfilled by simply “telling stories raising awareness” about climate change; club-kid anarchists Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), previously involved in sabotaging a dam in Portland; and hunter and Second Amendment defender Dwayne (Jake Weary), whose family land was seized by the federal government and handed over to an oil company. When they meet up in West Texas, their energy is rambunctious, audacious, and a little bit self-aggrandizing, which How to Blow Up a Pipeline captures in long pans and tracking shots of the group. Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro shot on 16-mm. film, imbuing the gorgeously sparse visuals — particles of Texan dust, plumes of San Pedro oil-refinery smoke — with texture and weight.

There’s a well-organized methodology to how the script provides just enough information for these people and their actions to become both realistic and empathetic. Each character’s past is sketched briskly with dialogue that explains their radicalization in response to intractable systems unwilling to change present actions for the sake of a hypothetical future (Theo’s demoralizing phone call with a drug-company representative, Xochitl’s unimpressed reaction to a classmate clinging to divestment as “a big step in the right direction”). These little vignettes aren’t as taut and tense as the bomb prep — including the lengthy, harrowing scenes of Michael using a knife’s edge to transfer explosive powder into a blasting cap and the group working together to roll the bright-red steel-drum bombs into their planned locations — but their everyday quality helps the film maintain a “This could be you” quality. The cast’s naturalistic performances add to that understated familiarity; when Goodluck’s aggrieved, de facto leader tells his peers “I’m very proud of all of you,” he’s immediately met with “Thanks, Dad” jeers, and it says so much about their group dynamic in fewer than ten words.

Only a few times does How to Blow Up a Pipeline feel like it’s being flashier (a cascade of quick zooms and rapid edits during the film’s climax are less anxiety-inducing than distracting) or more tight-lipped (a character broadly complains about “white people,” but beyond its casting, the film avoids digging too explicitly into the racially disproportionate impact of global warming) than it needs to be. The film is most engrossing when it takes what we’re used to tuning out or joking about and asks how our world would change if we took that background noise seriously: A news report about refugee crises plays at a low drone while Alisha cleans a wealthy client’s house; Dwayne’s wife apologizes for not having drinking water to serve, a reality in many American communities; Xochitl and Theo recognize the sulfur smell in the air around the pipeline as the same one that permeated their youth in Long Beach. As How to Blow Up a Pipeline throttles between helplessness and vigilantism, it isn’t asking for approval or permission — it’s telling us to shut up and take notes.

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How to Blow Up a Pipeline Picks a Fight