by Katherine Connell
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Dir. Daniel Goldhaber, U.S., NEON
Effective storytelling often centers ambiguities and the posing of questions rather than the incitement of direct action. Given this, narrative cinema has often struggled with climate change stories and how exactly to work against the passive dimensions of film viewing. Meanwhile, the apocalyptic realities of climate change (most recently articulated by the IPCC’s “final warning” published in its sixth assessment report) have reached such a level of urgency that even films not explicitly addressing climate subject matter become implicated or referential by way of their very medium and moment.
Considering the looming narrative, technical, and ethical concerns about making films at this point in the climate crisis, cinema’s potential to influence audience behavior via identification with onscreen characters has been appealing to filmmakers encouraging viewers to act against the grain. Since, when it comes to the climate crisis, a radical disruption of the status quo is long past due, director Daniel Goldhaber’s heist thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline finds itself leaning into these qualities in order to retain the spirit of Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s nonfiction book of the same title: a manifesto-like treatise about the political efficacy of property destruction within climate activism.
Malm’s book doesn’t provide the “how to” promised in its title, but these logistics are central to the film’s plot, which traces the coming together of a disparate group of young environmental activists as they execute a high-stakes, dangerous act: building a bomb to explode a pipeline in the West Texas desert to destabilize the price of oil. Backed by a 1980s-style industrial, synthesizer-heavy score from Gavin Brivik, Goldhaber’s film builds a rhythm of extremes: present tense scenes that depict the sweaty, stressful physicality of illegally building, transporting, and successfully detonating a homemade bomb escalate to peak tension before toggling suddenly to flashbacks that track each character’s journey towards their arrival at this form of activism. The result is an ensemble piece that maps a group whose sense of gravity towards the task at hand exceeds their differences, which also examines the different reasons that might lead individuals to commit to actions of this magnitude.
If the world was in bad shape when An Inconvenient Truth (2006) mainstreamed the notion of global warming via a glorified PowerPoint presentation—which largely put the onus on consumer choices rather than the accountability of powerful corporations—the film was fittingly given the industry equivalent of a thumbs up from a laissez-faire boss. When it became clear that merely talking and learning about climate change was only illusorily productive, more filmmakers began to contemplate the ecological ticking clock—as well as how to effectively represent it—with increased fascination and responsibility. These cinematic lines of inquiry are fictionalized in Kelly Reichardt’s unconventional eco-thriller Night Moves (2013) in which a post-screening Q&A with a fictional documentarian produces myriad incongruent opinions that get wrapped up by a Travis Birkenstock-type character lauding the merits of “just coming together and sharing our concerns.” Reichardt’s film, in which three activists explode a hydroelectric dam, is one of How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s most obvious cinematic precedents (within the Anglo-American context), a rare example that legitimately considers “eco-terrorism” within environmental movements. Yet while Night Moves interrogated the merits and setbacks of sabotage via slow-burn philosophizing, its pacing feels dated ten years later as we no longer have the luxury of time.
In this light, it’s understandable that How to Blow Up a Pipeline opts for narrative tightness over equivocation. The film spends minimal time dwelling on whether its titular action is necessary or worthwhile and is often weakest when it zooms out to contend with ideological comparisons. A conversation between plan instigator Xochitl (co-writer and producer Ariela Barer) and participant Alisha (Jayme Lawson) devolves into the clichés (albeit well delivered) of “who has the right to play God” dialogue. Other forms of activism encountered by the main cast—artist activists, college divestment participants, peaceful protesters of their parents’ generation—are swiftly dismissed. Though it might be true “that work is not fucking working,” as Xochitl snaps towards the end of the film, the minimized representation of these modes of involvement can land as relatively superficial. Similarly, although the film gestures to ideological differences within its central group, the desire to propel action overrides a deeper consideration of interpersonal political conflict.
Leaning into genre might strike some as a way to prioritize narrative pleasure, but
it works here to capture the directness of Malm's text. The film’s ending scene transposes Malm’s manifesto by lifting his words verbatim: as participants in the heist uneasily escape back to their “regular” lives, Xochitl and her childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane)—who both grew up near industrial plants that have caused Theo’s leukemia—take the fall for creating the bomb, and a TikTok video goes live in which Xochitl gazes directly at the camera and says: “If we want to survive we must damage and dismantle CO2 emitting devices: demolish them, burn them, blow them up.” (Part of this monologue has also been recirculated as the film’s marketing tagline.)
To conclude with this incendiary note of direct address gets at the aspirational thrust of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: that the film might encourage young viewers to become involved in direct action rather than sink into the kind of doomscrolling we see from one of Xochitl’s earliest co-conspirators Shawn (Marcus Scribner). Yet although the film makes radical activism look desirably brave while also doable enough to inspire its audience, it also underscores that such actions hinge on a willingness to be incarcerated or killed if necessary. Interspersed with the rolling end credits are ominous snapshots of a group of people who will forever be anxiously looking over their shoulders. These deeply unsettling images—a final close-up of Xochitl in a prison cell while Theo, attached to an external oxygen supply, languishes alone on a hospital bed instead of in the arms of her lover—curb any lingering utopic thrills. The film’s emotional adrenaline gives way to desperation which, while sobering, might be the feeling we need to tap into the most.