Jun 1, 2023
Content Warning: Movie spoilers
In 2021, Andreas Malm, a Swedish associate professor of human ecology at Lund University and activist, released a controversial and incendiary book called How to Blow Up a Pipeline. The non-fiction book from the leftist publishing house Verso Books argues that climate activists should engage in property destruction of critical fossil fuel infrastructure due to the ineffectiveness of the largely non-violent movement to stop climate change. What could have easily been just another theory book that was little known outside the Left instead unexpecedely crossed over into more mainstream attention, even garnering reviews from the likes of neoliberal techocrat New York Times opinion columnist Ezra Klein. Now, just two years later, a fictional film adaptation of the book has already been produced, made its rounds on the festival circuit, and is now in a wide theatrical release.
The film, directed by Daniel Goldhaber and co-written by him along with Ariela Barer (who also stars) and Jordan Sjol, follows a small group of disaffected activists from different parts of the country who come together in rural West Texas with the goal of strategically blowing up a pipeline in an attempt to force more substantive and meaningful action to combat the climate crisis. The ensemble cast also includes Lukas Gage (The White Lotus), Marcus Schribner (Black-ish), Kristine Froseth, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jake Weary, and Irene Bedard. The plot is cleverly structured as a heist thriller that consistently keeps up the tension and quickly reels you in. By employing this tried and true genre to capture the audience’s intrigue, the story is elevated above being simply ideological and engages us on an emotional level that is quite compelling. I was fully invested in these characters and their mission not just because I found them to be righteous intellectually, but because I was very much able to see myself in these characters and their struggles. This is where the power of How to Blow Up a Pipeline lies.
Goldhaber, when asked by Malcolm Harris of the publication Jewish Currents what his film’s goal is, stated, “It asks the question: What kinds of tactics are defensible in fighting climate change? One source of climate doomism is the sense that this is such a big problem that it feels impossible to even start tackling it. That’s paralyzing. We’re telling a story about eight people who believe the answer is the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure; they see this as an act of self-defense. The film asks the audience to empathize with them and, by extension, to consider that argument.” What Daniel Goldhaber and his collaborators seeks to achieve with How to Blow Up a Pipeline is nothing short of radical within the context of mainstream American filmmaking. Fictional films in American cinema with a wide release that directly and passionately sympathize with unabashedly radical activism are almost unheard of. The closest example of something similar emerging in recent times is Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), which was given a fairly low-key streaming release by Warner Bros. during the COVID-19 pandemic and ended up winning two out of six total Oscar nominations. However, that film was placed firmly within a historical context and the focus was more on the informant protagonist’s perspective than that of Fred Hampton and the other Black Panthers. How to Blow Up a Pipeline puts us in the midst of this activist milieu in the current era from start to finish with little focus given to their opposition. For this fact alone, the film should be commended.
However, How to Blow Up a Pipeline does have its weaknesses too. When I went to see this film, I went with a group of friends and comrades from UO Young Democratic Socialists. Afterwards, when we discussed our thoughts on the film, one of the main flaws that stuck out to us was the characters’ lack of adherence to the norms of security culture. At multiple points, the characters were far too loose-lipped and sloppily insecure in their organizing of the action. One point that particularly stuck out was when in a public meeting in a library Xochitl (Ariela Barer) expressed her frustrations with the limits of her group’s organizing to get their college to divest from fossil fuels and openly called for destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. Another is when Michael (Goodluck) posts videos of himself giving instructions on how to construct bombs on TikTok prior to his involvement in the action. An additional critique that I heard from an Insurgent comrade that stuck with me was that the only people who were caught and incarcerated were people of color and all the white characters weren’t, which while making sense within the context of the plot still seemed to be an odd choice for this type of story.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a film that certainly wears its influences on its sleeves. Goldhaber and Barer listed Ocean’s Eleven, Reservoir Dogs, The Battle of Algiers, and the Eugene-set documentary If a Tree Falls as inspirations. The filmmakers deftly wove together elements of these and other films to create something unique, fresh, distinctive, original, and thought provoking. Is it a perfect film? No. However, this film will not only help push forward the necessary dialouge to be had about how best to respond to the dire state of the climate crisis in the face of institutional indifference and pandering, woefully insufficient “compromises.” The existence of a film adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline will of course not change much on its own. But, it marks a major shift in American media and will surely inspire activists today and for generations to come. By forcing average, less political audiences to consider what the activists on screen say and do and also allowing people who see themselves in these characters to feel validated in this portrayal, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is powerful! If the FBI finds a film’s mere existence to be dangerous and noteworthy and National Review describes it as “a bizarre, cold-blooded illustration of why we no longer trust our media”, then surely they must be doing something right! I give How to Blow Up a Pipeline a rating of four out of five stars and recommend checking it out! The film is currently1 screening at the Broadway Metro theater in downtown Eugene.
Technomancer’s Note: The film is no longer screening at the Broadway Metro Theater as of July 7th, 2023 ↩︎