How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a Brisk Thriller and a Passionate Argument for Revolution
The Fictionalization of Andreas Malm’s 2021 Manifesto Asks How Far We Should Go to Fight Climate Destruction and Injustice
The central thesis of Andreas Malm’s manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire is that peaceful protests have proven themselves ineffective in stopping the widespread annihilation of the earth and its inhabitants by climate change. The book, published by Verso Books in 2021, explains that the only available option is to take more radical action, not against people but against the infrastructure that is the source of this danger.
In a survey of the history of social, organizational and governmental change, Malm argues that every major movement has had to move past pacifistic stances in order to effect meaningful developments. Now, he writes, is the time for the climate movement to do so. In a world in which inanimate structures (like pipelines, rigs, refineries, processing plants and other large-scale manmade constructions) are the primary means of destruction, Malm argues that the recourse is simple: to eliminate them. To do so would not be an act of violence, but in fact, one of self-defense.
The characters of the new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline are very familiar with the tenets of Malm’s book. One of them, a college student named Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is even seen flipping through it in a bookstore. Another character, Logan (Lukas Gage), recognizes its its neon-persimmon cover, and walks over, offering the spoiler alert that it doesn’t literally explain how one might actually blow up a pipeline. Shawn isn’t looking for that information though; he and his friends already know how.
Rather, they will know how. How to Blow Up a Pipeline follows a group of young people (mostly early 2os but a few people around 30) as they band together with a specific mission: destroying a new oil pipeline that has been built in Texas. They all have different reasons for coming to this decision. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) has just lost her mother due to air pollution from the oil refinery next-door to their house in Long Beach, California; her childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane) has leukemia from growing up there, too. When they were children playing in the rain, the raindrops were so contaminated with noxious chemicals that they would leave welts on their skin.
Theo wants to use her remaining days to fight back, and she begs her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) to join them. Shawn is a college classmate of Xochitl‘s, depressed after realizing that exhortations for companies to divest from fossil fuels isn’t guaranteed to do much good.
Michael (Forrest Goodluck) lives in North Dakota on a Native American reservation, which has become endangered by a new oil rig, with the region additionally overrun by its transplanted workers. His mother (the great Irene Bedard) is involved with local peaceful environmental groups, but Michael doesn’t think these efforts will be enough to mitigate the ecological damage caused by the plant. So he starts working on homemade bombs.
Dwayne (Jake Weary) has had his family’s Texas property (land and house) seized via an eminent domain suit to facilitate the construction of a pipeline. He, his wife, and his young child are permanently displaced and saddled with debilitating legal fees. Logan and his girlfriend Rowan (Kristine Froseth) are two itinerant, animal-loving punks, part of a gang of vandals damaging ecologically dangerous structures on a more local level.
Together, this group of young people—astute, nervous, and brave—arrange a calculated, tactical operation to dismantle an organ of the oil industry, and reveal that industry’s overall fragility and the unfairness of its level of control. Not everyone agrees on the specifics, and everyone is worried about any potential negative effects this might have on the lives of ordinary people (people who have been forced into relying on gas to survive).
Still, they understand that they are faced with a last resort. They enact their plan fueled by senses of love and justice. They know they will be labeled as terrorists, but, someone points out, how different is what they’re doing than the Boston Tea Party? After all, America quick to try to reclaim and absorb its radicals.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which is directed by Daniel Goldhaber from a script by himself, Barer, and Jordan Sjol, is a gripping, tense thriller in the style of a ticking-clock heist plot. This format works well on a narrative level, especially because the characters quickly become very sympathetic and relatable and easy to worry about and root for.
Drawn emotionally and realistically, and performed sincerely by the impressive ensemble, these kids could be your classmates, roommates, or friends. (Or you.) Their precarious plan is amply justified, but they face a veritable sea of possible detractors and obstructors, from government drones of various kinds to the police.
At first, it might seem that fictionalizing Malm’s treatise, rather than, say, make a documentary about it, might produce an alienating effect—creating distance, an “unreal” circumstance for a problem which is real and must be recognized as such. But the film quickly dispels this concern, handling its wide breadth of characters with such insight and empathy that the eight fictitious personas become embodiments of familiar circumstances, offering more opportunities for an audience to identify, than a tool to keep real-world implications at a distance.
Stylistically, too, the film is impressive. Shot on 16 mm film in just under a month, and featuring crisp cinematography from Tehillah De Castro and pulse-pounding editing from Daniel Garber, it is in some ways a paragon of the genre it takes up. Heist movies area always a little unrealistic, though, and so it’s fortunate for How to Blow Up a Pipeline that there is no actual heist; this is a movie that keeps its entire purview in the realm of the possible, even the bomb-building, which is rendered in some of the film’s most tactile and nail-biting scenes.
What helps the time of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is the sort of craggy, fringy, ramshackle nature of its operation. This isn’t a polished, slick team, with unlimited precision equipment and an air of invincibility. There is believable danger around every corner, not just from outside forces, but by the nature of the task at hand: it’s clear that, at any moment, something could go off and these kids could die. At the same time, a pulsating, synth-y score from Gavin Brivik allows the film to keep one foot in a tone of futurism, which is essential to the film’s point: like Malm’s book, the film is not literally a manual about how to blow things up.
The film, which is both a narrative achievement and a cultural watermark, walks a careful balance regarding what, exactly, it is literally advocating for. In an interview with some of the cast and crew, after the opening night screening I attended, the three writers mentioned that they did not want their film to undermine the climate movement (which is a good instinct and the film upholds it). It represents a world in which this kind of action is the only option to prevent an ecological apocalypse. It asks what steps are necessary to meaningfully avert rampant obliteration. And it offers a reminder of a strategy that is still on the table—and, as Malm notes, has worked many times before.