How to Blow Up a Pipeline: this subversive slice of genre entertainment delivers no-frills eco-thrills

Generous with its action set-pieces, unforgivingly sharp in its implications, Daniel Goldhaber’s latest film blows apart the Hollywood stereotype of radical environmentalists being either sniffily supercilious or dangerously deranged.

26 January 2023

By John Bleasdale

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Tromsø International Film Festival

Hollywood has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the environment (and environmentalists). From Bruce Willis firing golf balls at Greenpeace activists in Armageddon (1998) to the eco-terrorist villains who have haunted Bond films (Quantum of Solace, 2008) and comic-book movies (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) for over a decade, mainstream movies have largely been happy to portray radical environmentalists as pompous hypocrites or downright unhinged. Artier American filmmakers have also proved susceptible to this tendency, albeit in a lower key: Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and Zal Batmanglij’s The East depicted their eco-terrorist protagonists as cultish, irresponsible and violent, and though both films are ten years old this year, there have been few positive portrayals of young green activists in the intervening years. The kids today, huh?

Now, with the climate crisis growing increasingly fierce and groups such as Extinction Rebellion gaining more popular support, the extreme is beginning to look a lot more sensible. Or as one of the characters of Daniel Goldhaber’s new film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, writes on a note she leaves on an SUV she just vandalised: “If the law will not punish you, we will.” Loosely based on a non-fiction book by Andreas Malm, the movie takes a refreshingly bold approach. Goldhaber turns Malm’s manifesto for activism and sabotage into a slick, entertaining and timely eco-thriller that refuses to sit on the fence.

The plot is straight out of the heist genre playbook. A ragtag group of individuals from all over the USA meet in west Texas to sabotage an oil pipeline. In doing so, they aim to tank stock prices and create a sharp shock to carbon-based fuel consumption in the US. The group lean young; their diverse backgrounds are relayed in a series of character-titled flashbacks that fill in their various motivations and different paths to extremism. Michael (Forrest Goodluck), from North Dakota, is the moody James Coburn type, a Native American violently opposed to the occupation of his land by miners and oil workers. Dwayne (Jack Weary) is an ex-serviceman with a young family, whose land is being bought from under him to build the pipeline. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) – the SUV vandal – and Theo (Sasha Lane) both grew up in a refinery town, and now Theo is dying from a rare leukaemia caused by refinery pollution.

Some have less apparently political motives. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are a coke-snorting, thrill-seeking couple, and Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is helping out to support Theo, her lover. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) seems to have the least compelling motivation: he’s a doom-scroller impatient with the more gradualist approaches espoused by the documentary filmmaker he’s assisting.

The film gives voice to the relevant debates: other environmentalists, law enforcement officers, and friends and loved ones object, touting incremental progress and lawful passive resistance, and warning our heroes about not putting off the public. But when an internal discussion of being labelled terrorists kicks off, the night before demolition day, Michael gives it short shrift: “If the American Empire calls us terrorists, we’re doing something right.” The film, likewise, has little time to indulge lip-biting doubt. It’s keen to get on with the action, accompanied by Gavin Brivik’s techno score, which tick-tocks throughout the film as the gang makes the bombs and then sets them in multiple locations (before the inevitable entry of unforeseen variables threatens to turn everything tragic). Throughout the narrative, the flashbacks themselves detonate like well-placed charges to disrupt the conclusions we might’ve reached about the characters and their motivations; some of editor Daniel Garber’s smash cuts are, literally, dynamite, leaving the audience suspended in a flashback until we return to the present-day timeline and see who’s still alive when the smoke clears.

Not since Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker! (1971) has someone produced such a subversive, politically forthright, partisan piece of genre entertainment. There are undoubtedly some well-oiled clichés and on-the-nose dialogue, but it’s refreshing to watch a film that doesn’t dress up weary, unimaginative irony as political sophistication. It means what it says; fire alarms aren’t meant to be subtle. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is eco-friendly dynamite, a necessarily dangerous film that argues that violence against property can be an act of self-defence.

In a rather different context, Conservative Prime Minister John Major once said that we should “condemn a little more and understand a little less”. To paraphrase Xochitl: if the law will not condemn you, this film will.

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