Film Review: How to Blow Up a Pipeline


A sense of powerlessness is often described as a root cause of climate-anxiety, and it seems inevitable that such negative energy would have an equal and opposite: dreams of drastic action. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a ‘what if’ film about targeting carbon infrastructure, dressed with the contours of a heist movie and delivered with the imaginative punch of gelignite.

It’s not easy making films about the destruction of property. When writers get a little too close to the bone of what’s ailing society, in Fight Club for instance, they’re liable to unleash a little too much id. Unbatten the hatches on those sociopathic urges that lurk beneath and, before you know it, people are appropriating your monologues and turning a thoughtful treatise into a culture war grenade. The creative team behind How to Blow Up a Pipeline – Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol and Daniel Goldhaber – seem aware of that dilemma. Their film deals with the profane, in capitalist terms, but it doesn’t want you to think its characters are angels. Instead, there’s the same sort of moral ambivalence in this gang of idealists that audiences have learned to love among dirty cops and compromised agents, but this time out, the rule of law is being bent in the name of considerate terror.

Xochitl (Ariela Barer) has grown up in a chemical bower, beside an oil plant in Long Beach, CA, with her close friend Theo (Sasha Lane). They resent the triumph of industry over individuals and the sickness it’s brought to their community. Witnessing so much environmental degradation makes them feel desperate, and once you’ve heard the film’s title, you’ll know what they plan to do about it. With a mixed cohort of similarly determined co-conspirators, the group devise a strategic attack on a Texan pipeline. Bringing a limited expertise in the manufacture of explosives, but plenty of idealistic fervour, they decamp to a shotgun shack in the desert and set things in motion.

The film is tautly constructed, edited by Daniel Garber in a way that interpolates the pipeline plot with individual background stories for each would-be terrorist so as to complicate and drive the main narrative. It does justice to its source material (Andreas Malm’s sabotage polemic of the same name), by making a convincing case for the ethics of violent civil disobedience without being doctrinaire. The love shown for the heist genre itself, its thrills and pleasures, leavens any sense of heavy handedness in the subject matter, and like any good crime caper, it toys with your unspoken loyalties. It can be sly as a fox one minute and as obvious as dynamite the next, but it’s never less than thrilling.

Tom Duggins | @duggins_tom

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