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Defector At The Movies

‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ Is A Film About Action

HTBUAP5.Courtesy of NEON
Image: NEON

Action is not merely something that happened, but something done, with movement and often intention. Action can be controlled and harnessed, learned from and wielded, a force in the universal chain of cause and effect by which humanity exerts its power over our environment. In the new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, action is the animating principle, serving as the basis through which climate catastrophe might be avoided, presented in the form of a ceaselessly tense heist thriller. If transforming Andreas Malm’s non-fiction manifesto of the same name into a genre film seems an unnatural choice on its face—why not a documentary about climate activism?—director Daniel Goldhaber and his collaborators’ film succeeds by demonstrating the possibility of the Swedish author’s ideas through action.

It’s a stale point that Malm’s book doesn’t actually contain instructions for how to blow up a pipeline—a fact turned into a minor joke in the film. No manual for terrorism, the book instead makes the case that the climate movement has been oddly lacking in violence and property destruction, especially compared to other movements where the stakes are lower. Weighing the positive good and potential pitfalls of taking on that sort of action, Malm argues for the moral necessity of safe and effective property destruction, which if performed at scale might create the social and political will to end fossil fuel extraction. If it is made too costly for the oil industry to continue functioning, well, the logic isn’t hard to understand.

But there’s a space left open in the book. While Malm may outline the kind of action he thinks would be effective to combat the forces spewing carbon into the atmosphere (targeting infrastructure and avoiding injury to people), he doesn’t expend much energy laying out how such action would work in practice, leaving his more detailed descriptions to the smaller realm of SUV tire-slashing already common in parts of Europe and elsewhere. It’s fitting  that the film opens on a character slashing tires, and escalates from there.

It was an inspired idea, turning this book  into a heist movie. The heist genre is particularly suited to the endeavor, not least for the fact that pulling off a bombing is a lot like pulling off a heist. It’s also one of the few genres that consistently has audiences rooting for a group coming together to operate as a collective in pursuit of a  common goal that usually crosses into illegality. It’s a subversive genre, one that places the audience in the position of empathizing with a group of people working against dominant systems, whether they be banks, casinos or, in this case, Big Oil, all while having a good time at the movies. And How to Blow Up a Pipeline is first and foremost a good time at the movies.

From that opening scene, the film launches right into the characters packing up, putting their pre-planned alibis into motion, and making their way to an abandoned house in the middle of the Texas desert. Little time is wasted before they’re filling barrels with explosive material and fashioning the blasting caps. The tension holds, unabated, as the team goes through the process of blowing up a pipeline while avoiding casualties, and limiting oil spillage. There are moments of setback, as in any good action movie, and clever twists to keep things fun and give the audience something to cheer for. That feeling you got at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, when it’s revealed how the team actually staged the heist to get one over on Andy Garcia? How to Blow Up a Pipeline gives you exactly that sort of satisfaction, except here the team are a ragtag bunch of millennials and zoomers, and Andy Garcia is the faceless oil industry and the weight of the government and police who uphold it.

A series of well-timed flashbacks provides insight into what motivated each character to decide on property destruction as the best and only form of action left, as well as illuminating, in very broad strokes, how these individuals found each other and formed a group. The group aspect is important, as in any heist film. The characters each bring their own skills and perspectives to bear, and the collective effort to get the job done is reflected in the movie’s “a film by” credit, which attributes the work to the collective of director and co-writer Goldhaber, co-writer and star Ariela Barer, co-writer Jordan Sjol, and editor Daniel Garber. The ethos of collectivism suffuses the film. Though Barer’s character, Xochitl, is in a certain sense the lead character, she’s not even the person who first instigates the action. There’s no Danny Ocean. There is instead an assortment of young people of various backgrounds, experiences, and even politics, who band together against a common enemy for a genuinely righteous cause.

Of course, like the book that inspired it, How to Blow Up a Pipeline has attracted some controversy and criticism. If any of that criticism is worth paying attention to, it’s that which comes from the left, and from the activist and radical spaces the film is meant to depict and sit in conversation with. A recent piece by filmmaker and writer A.E. Hunt, published by the radical mobile cinema collective Cine Móvil NYC, levels harsh criticisms against the film. “I left How to Blow Up a Pipeline both as light as I came into it and remained through watching it,” he writes, describing in detail the various ways the filmmakers fail at the job of radicalism, both by adopting mainstream form and genre clichés, and in developing and distributing the film within the very capitalistic and often oil-adjacent film industry. Hunt proposes that the film works at cross purposes to its supposed aims, mollifying an already-climate conscious audience with feel-good entertainment about the possibility of action, without ever providing the basis from which action may be taken. Despite the film’s heavy focus on process, the filmmakers have admitted to hiding or altering the most important details of bomb-making (including with the help of an anonymous “higher-up” at the U.S. Bureau of Counterterrorism as technical advisor) to avoid the movie becoming a literal instruction manual.

Those criticisms are not to be dismissed, though Hunt’s proposed alternative—an experimental, outsider production, screened for activists and those affected by climate change, with discussions afterward, all as part of a larger instrument of radical movement propaganda—ironically reveals the value of How to Blow Up a Pipeline. The film may be about radicals, but it is not radical cinema. It may be independent cinema, but it’s a mainstream film, made in a mainstream genre, with a style that invokes the best in taut, intelligent ‘70s B-movie action fare. Though I’m not sure the filmmakers would be unhappy if someone saw their movie and then blew up a pipeline or a private jet, that doesn’t seem to be their aim. Rather, they are presenting the broader public—those outside radical spaces where activists have been taking action for decades—with a question in the form of entertainment: In the face of global climate catastrophe, whose side are you on?

“This was an act of self-defense,” one of the characters says in a voice-over during the film—it’s a line that is featured in the film’s trailer as well as its marketing material. It’s a sentiment that may sound glib to those in the midst of radical action, but for those on the sidelines, watching the world run headlong into disaster, it provides a perspective from which to understand the value of action. And not just action like sabotage or blowing things up, but in blocking highways and throwing soup at priceless art and chaining yourself to a tree. Action which can range from scary and destructive to simply annoying, but which, when placed within its appropriate context, becomes righteous self-defense against nefarious systemic forces.

At the premiere of How to Blow Up a Pipeline at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Barer described her passion for film being inspired by the idea of the medium as an “empathy-building machine.” It’s a notion that can indulge a kind of passive audience satisfaction and smugness, but which, when deployed well, can meaningfully affect the engagement of audiences with real material issues in the world. What How to Blow Up a Pipeline does is exactly that sort of positive empathy-building, depicting in a manner legible to moviegoers the reasoning and process by which ordinary people who care about the planet could come to commit what “the American Empire,” as one character says, would call terrorism. And for once, the terrorists are the good guys, and they kick ass.

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