Credit: Courtesy of NEON
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

How to Blow Up a Pipeline — Daniel Goldhaber

April 7, 2023

“Adapted” from Andreas Malm’s 2021 climate change manifesto of the same name, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline shoots out of the gate with a level of urgency that it’s rarely able to recapture across the rest of its runtime. Calling to mind Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, we’re introduced to eight eco-revolutionaries — collectively representing a cross-section of races, classes, sexual orientations, and faiths — as they move in synchronicity around the country. Committing random acts of sabotage against gas-guzzling SUVs, texting countdowns to clandestine group threads and dumping their phones, and piling into the back of vehicles loaded up with gas masks and sacks of ammonium nitrate, they behave practically as a hivemind, all backed by a slithery electronic score. These twenty-somethings move with purpose and coordination in service of a single-minded objective that’s right there in the film’s title, like a less fascism-curious version of Project Mayhem. Self-radicalized by the Internet, as well as living on the frontlines of an impending climate catastrophe, the characters dispel the canard of apathetic, social media-obsessed young adults content with performative “slacktivism.” Gathering in the middle of Texas in the days leading up to Christmas, replete with enough homemade explosive materials to blow a large hole in the planet, the group hopes to bring the oil industry to its knees and force a nationwide reckoning over the real cost of burning fossil fuels.

It’s a proudly political piece of filmmaking, viewing the motives of its characters as not only unambiguously righteous, but the absence of their actions as unforgivable in the face of looming global disaster. There’s no place here for equivocating or self-doubt — questions of collateral damage or consequences to the average person and/or the domestic economy are hastily brushed aside — and one can almost sense the film cheering on its characters as if they were Danny Ocean and his ten wisecracking cohorts knocking over three Vegas casinos. But like the Soderbergh film, that sort of complicity between the filmmakers and the characters encourages a form of anti-drama, with the film contorting itself to remove impediments or elliding any sort of interpersonal conflict, the kind of which would almost certainly be endemic to a gathering of personalities this eclectic. No matter what obstacles are placed in its way or digressions are briefly humored, How to Blow Up a Pipeline never deviates from its exceedingly linear journey of getting from point A to point B. It’s important to Goldhaber and his collaborators that their characters succeed in their onscreen objective, almost as if to illustrate a path forward for the audience, dramatic stakes or entertainment value, as they’re conventionally understood, be damned. 

The film’s primary M.O. is taciturn competence. Working out of an abandoned farm not far from their targets in the Texas oil fields, the characters brusquely go about their assigned tasks, carefully measuring out liquid pipe-cleaner and granulated stump remover, building blasting caps and remote detonators, all too aware that one wrong move could draw the attention of the authorities or, worse, blow them into oblivion. Idle chit-chat is kept to a minimum, and even when the characters do cut loose in their off hours, they sound like Rage Against the Machine lyrics: “If the American Empire calls us terrorists, we must be doing something right,” proclaims Forrest Goodluck’s perpetually glowering explosives expert, Michael. At regular intervals we’re given self-contained biographical modules, flashing back to the characters’ prior lives and the exact moment they were pulled into the cause. De facto leader Xochitl (co-writer and producer Ariela Barer) lost her mom to a freak heatwave, a tragic side effect of “the fucking world we live in now,” and subsequently became disenfranchised with ineffectual college protests. Her childhood friend, Theo (Sasha Lane), is dying of late-stage Leukemia, only underscored by the carcinogen-spitting smokestacks which loom ominously behind Xochitl’s house (the film loves nothing more than shooting its actors against backdrops of flare stacks and oil refineries). God-fearing, good ol’ boy Dwayne (Jake Weary) has an ax to grind with the oil industry after he lost his home to eminent domain, making him a strange bedfellow with this group of well-educated leftists (not that the film’s especially interested in his politics, such that he actually has any). And so on.

Dwayne, who on the face of it would seem to be something of an outlier in this group, is indicative of the limitations in attempting to adapt an explicitly ideological work of nonfiction into a narrative. Introduced saying grace at a family meal, wearing camo and carrying a sidearm on his person at all times (the film flouts the trope of Chekhov’s gun, with the piece never leaving its holster), the character provides an essential narrative purpose — his knowledge of the pipeline and its operations is indispensable to carrying out the attack — but if he has any misgivings about this rainbow coalition of out-of-state activists playing enemy insurgent or concerns about his young daughter being raised without a father because he might be rotting in a prison cell, he keeps them to himself. That’s because none of these characters behave like living, breathing human beings with competing interests or larger concerns beyond the immediate needs of the mission; they’re merely symptoms of a societal illness that touches everyone, from rich white kids in Portland to poor Indigenous activists in North Dakota. Commonplace responses to stressful circumstances such as frustration, fear, or ego are conveniently held in check. These people are merely empty vessels, filled up with equal parts zealotry and pragmatism where personalities or character flaws might otherwise exist. It’s admirable from a group project standpoint, but it makes for middling drama. 

That goes double for the execution of the plan. Ostensibly structured like a thriller (all the unstable explosive materials and navigating bumpy, dirt roads allows for superficial comparisons to Wages of Fear or Sorcerer), how thrilling one finds the film is entirely dependent on their tolerance for a near total absence of dramatic complications. Things invariably go wrong along the way (bones are broken, armed oil company surveyors arrive on the scene, there’s even an FBI informant amidst the group), yet they create remarkably few problems downstream or the necessity for the characters to pivot. It’s the kind of film that takes considerable pains to show the physical exertion required for six people to hoist a heavy metal drum several feet off the ground and strap it to an above ground pipe, while at the same time, after the strap rips in half and a couple of team members go down with injuries, the film simply cuts to a sequence showing three people lifting the barrel, no worse for wear. It all plays like someone entered a cheat code, mitigating all consequences or hardships (by the end of the film every character is exactly in the place they chose to be) because the outcome is simply too damn important to be impeded by something as gauche as garden-variety dramatic incident. Perhaps all that matters is that the film inspires viewers to pick up where it leaves off and continue the important mission of its characters. After all, they make it look so easy.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 14.