May 19, 2023 | ARTS & ENTERTAINEMNT | By Sophia Lisco
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire” is a nonfiction novel, written by Andreas Malm, arguing in favor of acts of sabotage and ecoterrorism as reasonable forms of activism. Offering a somewhat radical perspective, Malm counters the pacifist tactics associated with environmentalist movements and instead advocates for acts of destruction and violence that will halt harmful activities. This is the work that inspired director Daniel Goldhaber in his movie adaptation, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”
The nature and content of the film is inherently controversial, and “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” divided audiences and critics alike, earning laudation in some circles with others calling for boycotts. Within this narrative, Goldhaber hoped to reframe the climate justice movement with the goal of instilling hope in a moment where it feels that there is none.
The showing of the film is a feat in itself, as such radically political films are rarely given attention in the mainstream. This one stands out, for Colorado College students could have caught “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” when it was playing at Tinseltown, just down the road from campus.
The film also features a strong cast of lesser-known actors who create an ensemble of leftist Generation Z-ers (with one exception). The movie doesn’t seem to have a single “star,” and the structure and feel of the film clearly subscribes to the heist film genre with the assembling of the team and fast-paced action sequences resembling “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
Ariela Barer plays Xochitl, a grieving student whose mother perished in a “freak heat wave” and who is the one to hatch the grand plan intending to blow up an oil pipeline in Texas. She is joined by a fellow student, Shawn (Marcus Scribner), and her childhood friend, Theo (Sasha Lane), who was diagnosed with terminal cancer as a result of chemical contaminants.
The team grows to include various areas of expertise including an incendiaries expert, Michael (Forrest Goodluck), and a middle aged, gun-toting Texas native, Dwayne (Jake Weary), who knows the land well but sticks out amongst the group of leftist youths. Each member of the seemingly incohesive team has a distinct reason for being there, as is revealed through flashbacks that scatter the film.
The action-to-flashback ratio and timing is expertly balanced throughout the film and contributes to the sense of urgency and intensity that builds as the narrative progresses. The story seems to be simultaneously action and character driven, which results in a gripping, unique film with no lulls. By allowing viewers to see into each character’s respective backstory, Goldhaber leaves room for narrative twists that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. For a relatively short feature, clocking in at 1 hour, 40 minutes, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” sure gets a lot done.
The film tackles the Issue of violent vs. nonviolent action that has occupied activist conversations for decades, and even the members of the team tend to disagree on the issue. In one conversation, group members draw comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Jesus Christ as they contemplate the moral implications of their actions.
“If the American Empire calls us terrorists,” says Michael, “then we are doing something right.”
In blowing up the oil pipeline, the group hopes to hinder the processing and distribution of fossil fuels while sending a message to the world. While this is certainly a noble cause, it brings up questions regarding the justification of violence. If nobody is physically harmed and no oil spilled, is the violence “okay?” What about the people who will lose their jobs, or the people who will no longer be able to afford power? What about the nonviolent work that is already progressing and gaining traction?
Andreas Malm would answer that this nonviolence movement simply isn’t working. The next step, he argues, is to sabotage the environmental threats. Often, this is through destruction – this is ecoterrorism. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” draws attention to this debate. Is it a call to action? A warning? This is up to the viewer to decide.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a wildly entertaining film. The narrative structure and action scenes draw from classic heist films while keeping a fresh, modern feel. For a film that’s flown largely under the radar, it blew me away.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is available for streaming now.