In 2021, Andreas Malm caused worldwide discussion and a minor scandal with a theoretical text arguing that the only moral and effective way to approach the coming climate catastrophe was through sabotage and destruction of those mechanisms exacerbating the crisis – ie. the fossil fuel industry. This critique of nonviolence and pacifism within How to Blow Up a Pipeline, delivered with a calm logic, becomes the basis of a fiction film written by Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Goldhaber (who also directs). Turning a theoretical text into a work of fiction seems an odd choice; here, where the issues at play are literally life and death, illuminating an (arguably necessary) action through eight fictional characters from all walks of life brings the urgent issue to an easily relatable narrative structure. The result is a work of brilliance and excitement.
The eight gather in rural Texas to plant two homemade bombs at two points along a pipeline – making sure to turn off the oil flow first, to minimise environmental disaster. The mundane practicalities of sabotage – phones in microwaves, not a single wrapper left behind – is portrayed with detail and pace, aided by extraordinary film editing by Daniel Garber. Deft, sharp cuts at moments of nail-biting tension highlight the excruciatingly high stakes at play here: the physical (combustion, explosion, catastrophic bodily injury and death), the legal (trespassing, destruction of property, possible terrorism charges), the moral (the possible impact on low-income communities reliant on oil), and the emotional (see: all previous categories). How to Blow Up a Pipeline looks slick and polished, but never to the detriment of its narrative drive or characters’ emotional journeys.
Flashbacks interspersed throughout the sabotage mission introduce each character and their motivation for drastic, necessary action. One has lost a mother to illness brought on by an oil refinery’s pollution; another is dying of a rare cancer from growing up in a similar area. One has lost family land to government seizure, and a handful of others are rebelling against others’ perceptions of their (distinct and separate) roles in society. They sometimes feel like constructions rather than characters, but their diversity of income and experience (though all but one are very young) emphasises that the struggle is universal, and no one will escape the climate catastrophe.
The occasional exchanges feel like manifestos rather than dialogue, but never in a way that interrupts the story (indeed, they are not out of character for the young and righteously angry). Moments of philosophical conversations are minimal, but illuminating – hinting at subtle ideological differences and motivations that threaten to cause friction but never getting bogged down in the theory, or derailing the world. Equally captivating and more delightful are all-too-human urges that feel outrageous – but also uniquely truthful – when life, limb, and liberty are at stake.
Startling, lucid, and urgent, How to Blow Up a Pipeline shows the possibilities for and practicalities of direct action. In its passion and clarity, it’s an essential work for our time.
Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie
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