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Hello kings and kweens. This is a review for How to Blow Up a Pipeline. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an action thriller directed by Daniel Goldhaber. I really liked this movie a lot. I’m not an environmentalist and I didn’t think I needed to be to enjoy this movie. It is an exciting heist/crime film but one that’s incredibly relevant to our current moment. If that sort of thing interests you I think it has a lot to offer. There are two things I want to talk about with this movie.
I want to talk about its serene sense of characters, and I want to talk about its tension.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a narrative feature film based on a nonfiction book by the same name. The book was written by Andreas Malm and released in 2021. Malm wrote his book as a series of critiques of nonviolent activism in relation to climate change. He argued if climate activists truly believed their views then they should shift from activism to active sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure and other forms of ecoterrorism.
The need for this shift is because climate activists argue our damage to the environment is reaching a breaking point and we need far more change more rapidly than what’s happening. The problem is the capitalist system disincentivizes any short-term changes in our energy policy because it would result in higher costs. If our infrastructure is built around oil and gas, then naturally dismantling that infrastructure in favor of cleaner alternatives is a new cost. People don’t like paying more for things so this makes alternatives very unpopular.
This suggests incremental changes to energy policy would take a very long time to implement — assuming they were successful at all. It’s possible the increase in cost would make these policies politically unviable. Businesses don’t like investing in uncertain markets and the general public doesn’t want higher energy costs. Therefore the only path forward is accelerationism through violence — at least, that’s the book’s argument. Let me be very clear to the FBI watching this — I do not advocate for ecoterrorism.
The film is a narrative story about what Malm’s argument looks like in practice. It’s not a documentary. It’s not even dramatizing an event that happened. It is a completely fictional interpretation heavily influenced by Malm’s ideas.
The movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline follows eight different characters who cross paths to blow up a pipeline. Each character has different reasons for being involved in the operation — although operation may be an overly formal word to use for what they do in this movie. The story of this movie is seeing the group carry out their act of ecoterrorist sabotage while we get glimpses of their motivations through flashback sequences.
Serene Sense of Character
The best thing about How to Blow Up a Pipeline is its completely convincing portrayal of its characters. This is a movie where the characters are authentic and their stories feel truthful. Truth is held as the highest ideal in this movie and it’s very refreshing to see a movie like this about this subject material.
In my experience, movies about left-wing politics exist in the danger zone of pandering and dishonesty. If I see a movie is about racism and people are claiming its the best movie ever — it almost certainly is not. People like to pretend movies about important things are better than they are as if releasing a bad movie about a specific political viewpoint would threaten the cause. My favorite example of this was Selma.
Selma is a movie about Martin Luther King and one of his key nonviolent protests. It’s also boring and sucks. Everyone pretended that movie was good, Ava DuVernay was the next big thing, she got $150 million from Disney to make A Wrinkle in Time which became one of the biggest box office bombs in history because it was so terrible.
Which now that I think about it… that’s all great. I love megacorporations losing hundreds of millions because no one can be honest and say a movie isn’t good. This happens all the time in filmmaking now and it was my number one concern for How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline does not have the problem of valorizing its characters for the sake of the cause. We get to know these characters through flash backs and their background isn’t always flattering. Generally the movie follows the sabotage operation from beginning to end but whenever there’s a peak in dramatic tension there’s a hard cut to a title card with one of the character’s names to indicate we’re about to get their backstory. One of the first back stories is for a guy named Michael who I thought emblemized the film’s intelligence in how it portrayed its characters.
Michael is a young Native American man from North Dakota and his back story shows he’s taken an antagonistic approach to his political views. His story begins with him instigating a physical confrontation with someone who’s living on native land. When he returns home with a black eye his mother admonishes him for his self-destructive behavior and suggests he contributes to a local Native American group instead. Michael says the group doesn’t do anything but make white people feel better and storms off.
From there he gets involved in building makeshift explosives and posting his progress on Tik Tok like a new anarchist cookbook. His Tik Tok presence is what introduces him to the group conducting the operation. Michael’s entire back story is less than 5 minutes and every creative decision in it communicates a known reality about climate activists and the types of people who would partake in ecoterrorism.
Michael is a cynical person who is disillusioned by incrementalist solutions like local advocacy. He’s resentful of having to compromise with people when he feels he has the moral authority. He feels more fulfilled through direct action and when his worldview is uploaded to Tik Tok it doesn’t take long to find fellow travelers with equally destructive views.
Everything about Michael’s story is true but the movie never comments on how you should feel about Michael. His mother expresses disapproval of his action, but Michael’s character is given an opportunity to explain why her view is inconsequential to him. As an audience, you can decide how you feel about Michael but you can’t deny that his character definitely exists in real life.
Personally, I thought Michael was a petty little jerk. He’s the kind of self-fulfilling cynic who wants to take the whole world down with his pity party. I’m sure there’s a counterargument if I was more informed about climate change or the treatment of Native Americans in the United States I would see Michael as a tragic character — or at least someone rationally responding to dire circumstances — but the movie didn’t tell me what to think about him. How to Blow Up a Pipeline takes this approach with every character and its impressive how much is conveyed in a short amount of time.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is just over an hour and a half but within the first 20 minutes each character has such a clearly defined presence within the group. This isn’t just because of the flashbacks. Those are dispersed all the way through to the final seconds of the film. Most of the time you learn things about the characters through other smaller interactions. This movie understands how every interaction is an opportunity to express something about the characters and it takes every opportunity to make them feel more real.
This isn’t through scenes designed around that purpose but rather the sum of smaller creative decisions. For example, Michael shows he has no sense of humor before his back story confirms it. You can also tell Alisha is the most moderate member of the group just from how she talks to her girlfriend about going to sleep. There are even nonverbal decisions like how Shawn’s costume design suggests he’s more educated than everyone else. Every interaction in this movie has a purpose. It accomplishes a lot in a short amount of time and that’s what makes it so engaging.
When the movie isn’t fleshing out its characters it’s drawing you in with the tension inherent to terrorism. This is a group of young adults creating makeshift explosives. There’s a lot of risk in that endeavor and the operation isn’t really a tight ship. It’s not so much that everything that could go bad does go bad, but rather the scrappiness of the operation is evident at all times so you don’t know what to expect. That might seem obvious for this type of movie, but I was really happy with how the narrative maintained its tension even after the climax.
The first half of the movie is thrilling but I remember thinking at some point the pipeline was going to blow up or not and I worried the story would lose steam after that. My concern was addressed when I realized the tension is kept up through learning more about the context of each character’s motivations.
Without spoiling anything about the movie, it maintains its tension because the context of the operation becomes more thrilling as you learn more about what it’s supposed to accomplish. You’re forced to reorient your relationship to what’s going on at least twice (it could be three times). Each instance of that shift draws you into the drama of the operation and you feel more invested in the outcome. This continues through to the ending credits of the film which I thought was a really interesting way to keep the story engaging.
I could compare this movie to Heat — one of the best heist films of all-time — because this movie shifts the tension away from if the operation is successful and instead focuses on your investment in the characters. Does this one character’s gamble work out? Does this character make it to where they wanted to go? Is this character’s exit strategy suddenly a liability? These questions are what keep the movie thrilling beyond its climax all the way to the end.
If I have one complaint about How to Blow Up a Pipeline it’s I wished it was longer. When the picture cuts to black there was a part of me that wondered if I was at the halfway point of a bigger story. Unfortunately it was the end. I think that’s actually the greatest compliment I could give this movie. How to Blow Up a Pipeline was so smart about its depiction of the characters and the tension was so engaging I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to see what happens next to these characters.
The reality is the story ends because that’s where the world is right now. There are some events that take place in the film and they are similar to what’s happening in real life. What happens next is still being written in actual history so this film can’t predict the future. If it tried to predict the future, it would have to make a political stance on what happens to these people. I’m very glad they chose not to do that. I felt a sense of loss seeing the credits because otherwise this is easily my favorite movie this year so far.
I would give How to Blow Up a Pipeline a 5 out of 5. I loved every second of this movie. It’s gripping. It’s relevant. It’s what the New York Times calls a “cultural landmark.”
I don’t think it’s a movie that advocates for ecoterrorism. I think it’s a movie that fills in the humanity behind arguments like you find in the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Maybe that argument is so alien to you you’re shocked by it. You might wonder: What kind of lunatic would argue for terrorism? This movie answers that question, but it doesn’t tell you what think after answering the question. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is one of the best examples of how film can create better understanding of complex events in the real world and that’s what makes it so great.
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