“How To Blow Up A Pipeline” may be agitprop, but it’s really good agitprop.
The movie dramatizes last year’s non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm that argues, in the words of its publisher Verso Books, for forcing “fossil fuel extraction to stop—with our actions, with our bodies, and by defusing and destroying its tools.”
It follows a team of young climate-activist saboteurs who attempt to blow up a pipeline in Texas. They want to spike the price of oil, but also to raise the cost of delivering that oil to a point where the company has to abandon that particular pipeline altogether.
The film opens with a young climate vandal slashing the tires of an SUV on the street, and leaving behind a leaflet helpfully explaining her actions to the victim, titled “Why I Sabotaged Your Property.”
Her activities barely finished, she gets a text message.
The action that’s the title of the movie is on, and we see the saboteurs arriving from all over the country at their base of operations. It’s an abandoned house in Texas, close to the pipeline they want to destroy.
We see the team members’ backstories, and often credible motivations that pushed or primed them to take action, and how they ended up as part of the team.
Xochitl exits her mother’s funeral, and in the background looms the refinery that allegedly killed her. As her friend remarks, “You’re an orphan now, it’s an origin story.” Xochitl – played by co-writer Ariela Barer – will become the catalyst for many other joining the group, including Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a key player in putting the team together.
Toronto Hit Film ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Proves a Hot Seller for Charades (EXCLUSIVE) https://t.co/2HCcDams3F
— Variety (@Variety) November 2, 2022
Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is an American Indian who sees the North Dakota oil boom as an abuse of native land that produces mostly jobs for whites. He becomes frustrated with his mother’s seed conservancy, calls her a “coward,” and YouTubes himself turning into MacGyver, learning how to make bomb parts.
Dwayne (Jake Weary) has his land of many generations carved up by eminent domain for a pipeline, he and his wife are forced to live in her parents’ house. Theo (Sasha Lane) contracts a rare form of a cancer, sometimes found near refineries; her partner Alisha (Jayme Lawson) reluctantly joins her on her radical journey.
And drug-addled Antifa radicals Rowan and Logan (Kristine Froseth and Lukas Gage) have already gotten into trouble trying to blow up infrastructure in Portland.
These are all solid performances, and each character is given a little room to breathe and develop on his or her own, in addition to their jobs in the ensemble. The characters fill the quotas for race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, but they don’t make a big deal of the intersectionality checklist and aren’t stereotyped as such.
“How To Blow Up A Pipeline” has a gritty, cinema verité look, shot largely hand-held and frequently from low angles. It’s an effective technique; not only does it add to the suspense, the ragged-edge feel is appropriate to a bunch of underground amateurs coming together for a job.
Director Daniel Goldhaber, speaking at the Denver Film Festival, cited “Zabriskie Point” as one of his key influences for the film, and it shows.
Goldhaber also noted that they shot on film to achieve this effect. “We could have shot digital, but it it would have ended up looking like a Levi’s commercial.” Film, indispensable to his storytelling, is a petroleum product.
How To Blow Up A Pipeline by Andreas Malm is one of @TheEconomist‘s picks on what to read to understand climate change: ‘an impassioned argument for climate activists to move beyond non-violent protests’https://t.co/TnuI9luoox
— Verso Books (@VersoBooks) October 31, 2022
The pacing is also perfect for what amounts to a destructive heist movie. As the day arrives and the plan is put into motion, things start to go wrong, the team needs to improvise, and some of those improvisations spin off consequences of their own.
There’s little question where our sympathies are supposed to be drawn to, or where the filmmakers’ lie. Goldhaber opened the Denver screening by noting his parents had worked for 30 years in climate research, so he grew up with an “appropriate sense of doom.”
This review isn’t the best place to debate the science, but some of the most recent reports suggest that sense of doom to be more inappropriate.
A little less self-righteousness might have served the filmmakers better. Alisha is given the chance to voice what little skepticism the film allows, maybe a few sentences’ worth.
Alisha cautions that, “We need to understand that we’re destroying in a few hours something that took years to create and will take years to replace.” Another character replies, “That’s just it, I don’t want to replace it with anything.”
In other exchanges, we hear the familiar refrain, “you can’t make omelets without breaking a few eggs,” unaware that violent revolution generally produces a lot of broken eggs and few omelets.
“We’re not murderers,” explains Rowan to Logan in a moment of climactic tension. But if a lack of fossil fuels leads people to freeze during a cold snap, then yes, in a very real sense, they are.
The great moral and ethical problem with a film like this is obvious – what happens if it inspires someone to go out and actually take “direct action,” possibly doing real damage in the process? In a post-screening Q&A, Goldhaber answered, and I’m paraphrasing here:
We believe that individual acts like this will happen when people feel pushed to the wall. We’re not saying to go out and blow things up. But we want to tell their stories in a populist way in a cultural context, to explain why people feel driven to do these things. We want people to understand it, because most media is corporate-owned, and they never will.
The explanation is less persuasive and more self-justifying. The original book’s purpose is precisely to show how traditional activist methods are insufficient, and how more direct action is needed.
Moreover, the film’s final scene itself betrays this claim.
The last six years has seen an increase in American political violence: an attempted decapitation of the House Republican leadership; the January 6th riot; the vehicular murder of a North Dakota teen over politics; the attack on Paul Pelosi; the attempted assassination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
What a shame that such excellent movie-making skills may produce more of it.
Joshua Sharf is a Senior Fellow for the free-market Independence Institute, focusing on public pension and public finance issues. By day a web developer, he has also found time to run for the state legislature, be a state editor for WatchdogWire, write for the Haym Salomon Center, and produce a local talk radio show. He has a Bachelors in Physics from U.Va., and a Masters in Finance from the University of Denver, and lives in Denver with his wife, Susie and their son, David. His work also appears frequently in Complete Colorado and American Greatness.