Film Review: “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” — Act Now!
By Ezra Haber Glenn
Daniel Goldhaber’s film is a loud boom of a wake-up call: we can no longer continue to ignore the alarm and keep hitting snooze as the world burns.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, written and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Cinema beginning on April 14. The film is currently in select theaters across the country and is sure to be streaming online legally (or otherwise) sometime in the near future.
In early 2021, a shocking new book by Andreas Malm caused a stir in environmental policy circles. Titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, this clarion call for the climate crisis analyzed past social movements — everything from women’s suffrage and the fight against Apartheid to a wide range of democratic revolutions — and posed the simple question, “With the stakes so high, why haven’t we moved beyond peaceful protest?”
Despite the eye-catching title, the book itself did not, in fact, provide a blueprint for blowing up pipelines, but simply a moral framework to render such acts reasonable, indeed rational. Malm’s intent was to be provocative, not incendiary. The book argues that real social change cannot depend on nonviolent organizing and peaceful protest alone: revolutions have always come as a result of property destruction (or at least the threat of it). Once we “follow the science” and recognize the existential threat that climate change poses, we must accept the case for carbon reduction by any means necessary, even if that means the destruction of the titular pipeline or more. (In addition to being a prize-winning author and scholar, Malm is a self-proclaimed “saboteur of SUV tires and coal mines.”)
Two years later (with, needless to say, sadly little progress in reversing the crisis: global CO2 emissions and temperatures continue to rise), Malm’s title is being repurposed as a film with renewed vitality and a sense of burning urgency (gallows-humor pun intended). Rather than an adaptation per se, How to Blow Up a Pipeline – the film – is a work of fiction inspired by the book. It’s a clever switch, exploiting the power of storytelling to move us from “what if…?” to “why not…?,” escalating the original provocation to a whole new level.
Written and directed by Daniel Goldhaber, the story follows a diverse group of eight young eco-warriors as they hatch a plan to (spoiler alert) blow up a pipeline. Through flashback sequences we see them meet and struggle through the moral, personal, and political implications of what they are considering, albeit somewhat clunkily (but hey: ethics are not easy to talk about, youthful passion is always a bit awkward, and it can be tricky to be subtle when you are also trying to be persuasive and exciting in just 90 minutes of screen time).
Despite the bleak circumstances driving this desperate attempt, the narrative is surprisingly animated. The pacing is less like an eco-parable or dry documentary, much more like a heist movie or a “delta-force” action caper, a tactical military planning team coordinating a strategic strike, part terrorist cell, part revolutionary vanguard. Goldhaber is aiming for a much more engaging pitch than we heard back in 2006 with An Inconvenient Truth from former Vice President Al Bore – er, Gore. Along the way, the film does, in fact, scatter a few breadcrumbs for those looking for the instructional manual Malm’s text didn’t supply. We learn that a text message can be used to send a remote signal to detonate a blasting cap, which can be somehow jury-rigged up from an old string of Christmas lights. We discover the explosive properties of common over-the-counter products — like fertilizer, stump remover, and Drāno — when they are not used as directed. We see characters taking careful precautions against getting caught: cell phones in the fridge whenever plans are discussed; no DNA traces at the hideout; keep it sober on the job; message via encrypted apps only. (Malm’s book does make an appearance in one scene set in an alternative/indie bookstore, immediately identifiable for its iconic, prize-winning fire-red cover designed by Chantal Jahchan.)
Perhaps the most clever plot contrivance is the group’s insistence that they strike the blow against Big Oil without causing unnecessary environmental damage or harming anyone in the process (directly, at least). These two requirements greatly complicate their task. In order to avoid polluting the very earth they are trying to save, the team is forced to manage some complex logistics: since the team has decided that they need to break the pipeline in two places, not just one (to ensure that it’s not dismissed in the media as a fluke), they must identify a particular stretch where the local conditions cause the pipe to jog slightly up over a bedrock ledge (in one case, even above ground, for easy access). When the pipe is blown, they reason, the excess oil will pool in the adjacent lower sections, rather than draining out into the landscape. (It’s true that some product will inevitably spill out because of the explosion, but — as the Texas local on the team reminds his anxious wife — it’ll be less than typically leaks out through normal operations, a reminder of just how toxic this industry is: yuck.)
As for the desire to prevent harm to people, that’s a thornier issue: destroying pipelines will disrupt oil flow and increase gas prices — that’s the whole point. But anything which raises the cost of gas and oil will, of course, disproportionately affect low-income folks, an issue the team struggles with but never fully resolves. (Again: ethics are hard, right? To give these questions due consideration, pick up the book version.)
In a similar vein, the narrative doesn’t spend much time actually explaining the science or the policy behind climate change. If you’ve been ignoring this story in the news headlines, scientific journals, and near universal global consensus over the past three decades, you might need some catch-up: for that, see the aforementioned An Inconvenient Truth, Chasing Ice (2012), Bidder 70 (2012), Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018), or I Am Greta (2020), all of which — along with dozens of other films and books and Ted talks — do a much better job explaining how we got here and advocating for policy solutions to save the planet. Still, in many ways that’s the point: all the science and understanding and speeches and demonstrations and teach-ins and movies aren’t doing anything: it’s just talk talk talk, not action, not results. (There’s even an amusing bit in the film that takes a jab at well-intentioned filmmakers producing earnest-but-ineffective documentaries while the world burns.)
In essence, impatience with the status quo is where this film taps into the DNA of Malm’s book. The time for waiting and discussing and is over — now is the time to take charge and actually do something. Goldhaber’s film is a loud boom of a wake-up call: we can no longer continue to ignore the alarm and keep hitting snooze. One of the characters, with steely determination, sums up the call to act, despite the unbeatable odds: “I’m not thinking about it, I’m doing it.” Slashing the tires on an SUV, blowing up a pipeline — or, presumably, a whole lot more — is not “property destruction” or “terrorism” — it’s self defense.
For the eight characters desperately in search of a solution, these feelings of powerlessness and futility are transformed into commitment and a form of fatalistic heroism. Beyond the predictable environmental and existential arguments, they all have very personal reasons for this fight. Their land, their communities — their very bodies — are being poisoned by petroleum and endangered by the climate crisis. Theo, who grew up in the shadow of a refinery, is slowly dying from pollution-caused leukemia; Michael boils over with rage when he considers the effects of fracking on his ancestral native lands in North Dakota; Xochitl lost her mother in a recent heat wave; and Dwayne’s Texas homestead was taken by eminent domain to make room for the very pipeline they intend to destroy. For these warriors, it’s payback time: they didn’t start this fight, but they are determined to finish it.
For much of the intended audience — a doomed generation, too young to be in charge but not yet old enough to feel, with confidence, that they’ll be dead before the arrival of what scientists predict will be total environmental collapse — these struggles will resonate. So will the desire to do something, anything, just to try to pushback, rather than wait and debate and deliberate while cowardly politicians dither. For the older generation – especially those engaged in the current policy debates, respectable members of a well-financed bureaucracy devoted to the slow (and profitable) churn of deliberative democracy – this comes as a warning shot across the bow.
(An edited version of this review appeared in Planning magazine.)
The Art Fuse‘s Nicole Veneto on How to Blow up a Pipeline.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in the Arts Fuse, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, Bright Lights Film Journal, WBUR’s ARTery, Experience Magazine, the New York Observer, and Next City. He is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine, and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. Follow him on https://www.urbanfilm.org and https://twitter.com/UrbanFilmOrg.