How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Description of image

Eight young anarchists from all walks of life meet up in the arid Texas desert. They gather supplies, hide their faces behind gas masks, and combine the ingredients for an improvised explosive with nonchalant efficiency. This is the homebase for an act of sabotage they believe is necessary, in the face of a climate disaster that isn’t changing course without some intervention. In its frenetic, exhilarating rush to the inevitable, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a rallying call for environmental action dressed in genre thriller garb.

Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Swedish activist and scholar of ecology Andreas Malm, writer-director Goldhaber, along with writers Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer (who also stars) take a distinctly unconventional approach to adaptation. There is no story in Malm’s book, but a manifesto, and the film cleverly infuses the ideas within its source material to bolster the deeply thoughtful conversations the group has throughout, as well as their motives for being here. Some represent the physical consequences of the climate crisis (Theo, played by Sasha Lane, has a terminal illness caused by pollution), others have seen their ancestral homes lay victim to encroaching industrialisation. Rather than wallow in helplessness, they choose to fight back.

In that sense, these characters embody Malm’s ethos. He questions why the environmental movement has stopped just short of offensive action, property destruction and violence, as orderly demonstrations have done little to sway the minds of politicians and capitalists who stand to profit from the destruction of the Earth. ‘The ruling classes really will not be talked into action,’ writes Malm. ‘They are not amenable to persuasion; the louder the sirens wail, the more material they rush to the fire, and so it is evident that change will have to be forced upon them. The movement must learn to disrupt business-as-usual.’

We’ve seen groups like Just Stop Oil disrupt to headline-making fanfare, leading detractors to question whether throwing soup at Van Gogh paintings or interrupting a snooker game distracts from the cause. But no matter how controversial, they achieve their goal of moving the climate crisis to the front pages. The activists of How to Blow Up a Pipeline go one step further, of course, by attacking the enemy at the core. Contrary to its name, Malm’s book, nor the film, are a step-by-step explainer to sabotage, but the former informs us what we should do plainly: ‘Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.’

Rarely do you see a film that is so unwavering in its conviction. After feeling so invigorated by Malm’s book and imagining the ‘image of a bunch of kids struggling in the desert with a bomb’, Goldhaber wanted to create a piece of propaganda. This idea was eventually talked down into something more nuanced, incorporating counterarguments to the book that Malm never addresses. We see characters express reservations about the effectiveness of their actions to inspire change and the potential collateral damage of spilling oil, as is the natural reaction to have. But eventually Pipeline reverts, holding firm in its ideas. As the de-facto leader of the group, Xochitl (Barer) is the most overt mouthpiece of Malm’s words, telling the world that ‘this is an act of self-defence.’ When some worry that they’ll be branded as terrorists, Michael – the amateur bombmaker whose indigenous North Dakota home borders a power plant – counters that such a label means they are doing something right.

Goldhaber’s sophomore feature continues his work of empathetic but incendiary looks at the unjustly maligned. While his debut Cam centers an online sex worker through the lens of surreal, unsettling horror, How to Blow Up a Pipeline weaves Malm’s ideas into a heist thriller. The film’s propulsive editing reflects the urgency of its stance: jarring cuts at climactic moments shift to flashbacks that illustrate every member’s past, as if time freezes for a moment at the final second before the wick of a bomb fizzles out. For all of the intellectual meat on its bones, Pipeline has all the markings of traditional American cinema, an intentional move on the filmmakers’ part. Goldhaber states that his aim was to ‘make a work of popular cinema that also disseminates an idea that has been generally taboo to discuss in public, and to do that in a broad way for a broad audience.’

The antagonist of the film lacks a face. No ‘Mr. Capitalist’ to shoulder the blame or direct your anger to. If anything, this dehumanisation of the fossil fuel industry heightens that danger, while grounding it within our reality. It’s an omniscient threat that always looms. As Xochitl mourns the loss of her mother, tears falling as she smokes a cigarette, the domineering skyline of a coal power plant in the distance sits just behind her. The notion of an invisible enemy ostensibly suggests that there’s nowhere to strike, but the sharp-minded activists of Pipeline, who attack with a precise methodology, render the target precisely clear for the viewer.

If we don’t cut emissions by half by 2030 and limit global warming to less than 2°C, we risk irreversible climate change. These are disheartening facts to absorb, threatening to make us feel like billions of Davids against the 1% of Goliaths. But How to Blow Up a Pipeline boldly argues that we mustn’t give in to climate fatalism. If this film isn’t exactly the handholding guide you were expecting, it instead demonstrates what can be possible. All hope is not lost, as long as we just do something about it.

Iana Murray

Freelance culture journalist

banknote calendar-02 calendar close down-chevron facebook filter google-plus left-arrow-02 mail play-icon right-arrow search shopping-basket small-play-icon tick twitter up-arrow