How to Blow Up a Pipeline ★★★

Andreas’ Malm How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire was meant to be an expression of the frustration Malm felt towards the current state of climate activism. He felt that the philosophy of nonviolence was compromising the effectiveness of real, life-changing reform. Malm’s book is an impassioned work of nonfiction that taps into his audience’s feeling of helplessness to do anything about the state of our planet on a large scale.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline

The film adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline shares that same passion but not much else, which is not necessarily to the film’s detriment. The film takes the title and makes it literal. It is a slick piece of entertainment that plays at times like a heist film. A disparate group of mostly young people take it on themselves to blow up a major pipeline in Texas in order to disrupt the supply of oil enough that it could cause real structural change in the U.S.’ policy towards fossil fuels.

Much of the film is dedicated to exploring the backstories of its characters. One character lives on a reservation in desperate poverty. He demonstrates how to build homemade explosives on social media, which is how he gets recruited to be part of this plot. Another character is a rancher whose land was taken over by eminent domain to build the pipeline in question. Xochitl, the main organizer of the group (Ariela Barera, who also co-wrote and co-directed with Daniel Goldhaber), plays her activist character with a single-minded intensity that threatens to alienate some of the less apparently passionate members of the group, including Theo (Sasha Lane), whose reasons for joining are far more personal.  

The stories of these characters display the spectrum of motivations why one might want to participate in an act of domestic sabotage, and their interactions with each other are very telling of their economic and social circumstances.  There are interesting, if brisk, discussions about privilege, economic and otherwise, which are the closest the film comes to philosophical discourse. A tense confrontation between the rancher (Jake Weary) and a filmmaker for a nonprofit is a perfect depiction of the divide between the educated and privileged and the economically struggling working class.

While films that speak about ideology clearly and freely can work, as the films of Godard and many other filmmakers have proven, academic discussion is not Pipeline’s ultimate goal. Pipeline is, essentially, an inspirational film. It is meant to inspire people by informing them that there are many others who share their anxiety about climate change and want to do something more than just use the recycling bin. It is also meant to be entertaining. Pipeline is a heist film with all the tropes: putting together a team with different specialities, planning the heist, unforeseen obstacles get in the way, etc. Though the film is getting a limited release most likely because its distributors do not see this movie playing well in more right-leaning parts of the country, Pipeline has more in common with blockbusters than arthouse films.

In fact, one could potentially accuse Pipeline of being manipulative, too well-engineered to play on liberal guilt. But there is a self-awareness in the depiction of the characters. They are not glorified. They are flawed human beings with many hang-ups and their actions can have real consequences, such as the loss of loved ones. Even though much of the film is dedicated to the backgrounds of these characters, there is only so much that a 104 minute run time can accommodate. But because of excellent casting and performances, we come to feel for the characters nevertheless. How to Blow Up a Pipeline feels like a film that governments should be afraid of. Not only does it make the destruction of property seem like a legitimate way of dismantling a capitalist system but makes it look cool in the process. It is no wonder that some states have issued warnings about the film, thinking that it could possibly inspire similar acts.

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