words by georgia wright
A new thriller movie makes a case for the expediency of sabotage and violence in a world under pressure.
The first time we meet Xochi (played by Ariela Barer), she slashes the tires of an SUV. It’s an act of premeditated environmental protest, one that takes aim at the obliviously wealthy and their gas-guzzling cars. In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the politically-charged heist movie, Xochi is only the first of many disruptors the audience will meet. As the name of the film suggests, her fondness for property damage is an indicator of the combustible thrills to come.
The film serves as a call to rethink nonviolence. It’s an argument also central to the book from which How to Blow Up a Pipeline is adapted, a slim political nonfiction text of the same name by Swedish author Andres Malm. The message behind both the book and film is clear: sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure is a logical, necessary method of fighting climate destruction.
The plot follows a simple premise: a scrappy group of American activists are building a bomb. They want to hit the fossil fuel industry where it hurts, and try not to blow themselves up in the process. “I got about halfway [through the book] and I just had this image of a bunch of kids in a desert, struggling with a bomb,” said director Daniel Goldhaber, who also wrote the film alongside Jordan Sjol and Barer.
On a purely emotional level, How to Blow Up a Pipeline hits. The high-stakes tension of an action movie is set against the even higher-stakes tension of an all-too-familiar reality fraught with climate grief and rage. It’s a compelling combination.
The movie’s eight main characters have a motley array of backstories. Xochi hails from the same refinery town as Theo (played by Sasha Lane), where the community’s proximity to fossil fuel infrastructure causes health problems. Theo, for instance, is fighting leukemia. Xochi, meanwhile, grieves the death of her mother from a freak heatwave. Other co-conspirators include Shawn (played by Marcus Scribner), who’s wracked with climate anxiety and dissatisfied with his campus divestment movement; Dwayne (Jake Weary), whose family land in West Texas was seized to build the pipeline in question; Theo’s devoted girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson); and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a somber Indigenous guy devastated by the oil extraction and flaring that has overtaken his town in North Dakota. Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) round out the cast as a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque pair of punks used to running from the cops.
In short: each of this merry band of ecoterrorists has a unique and powerful reason for wishing the fossil fuel industry ill.
Or are they ecoterrorists? That’s the recurring question. The night before the job, the group squats in a condemned house to swill liquor and talk through their nerves. “Of course I feel like a fucking terrorist. We’re blowing up a pipeline. That’s what they’re going to call us. Terrorists,” says Shawn. “No,” Rowan responds. “They’re gonna call us revolutionaries. Or gamechangers.” (It’s worth noting that Shawn is Black, and Rowan white.)
This sort of snippy, wry dialogue often reveals the inner conflict with which some of the characters are grappling; conflict that touches on questions like whether or not their actions are worth the risk—or are misguided, ineffective, even egotistic. For instance, Alisha works in a food pantry practicing direct mutual aid, and harbors many doubts about the bomb-building enterprise. She repeatedly expresses concern for potential collateral damage of the mission’s actions on civilians, despite others’ reassurances that no one will get hurt. At one point, she blows up. “You’re not God, Xochi, you don’t get to decide how people live and die,” she says. “Better me than the people currently deciding that,” Xochi retorts.
“The fossil fuel industry has one big giant gun to the proverbial head of the world.”
Though the ensemble shines, what truly sets the film apart is its villain.
“A movie in which the infrastructure is the enemy doesn’t only suggest a politically novel and incisive idea, but an idea that also makes for a fresh take on the heist genre,” said Goldhaber. It’s rare to watch a film where the bad guy doesn’t show face, rarer still where the villain isn’t a person but a system. The villain haunts the characters through flashbacks, which in turn remind us what’s driving their mission to fight back against the disastrous effects of human-induced climate change on their lives, health, and wellbeing.
After all, how dangerous or radical is their plan when compared to the long-term, existential destruction wreaked by carbon emissions? “The fossil fuel industry has one big giant gun to the proverbial head of the world,” said Goldhaber. “And I think it is a completely reasonable question to ask, Do we have a right to take it away from them and dismantle it?”
The real-world villainy at play here is, after all, a singular threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a sinister report some are calling their “final warning” in March, wherein they maintain (as they have for decades) that the encroaching 1.5C temperature rise deadline will mark the beginning of an era of irreversible damage. The already-small window in which to take action is shrinking by the second—and the United States government has been a fickle friend to the movement. Though many celebrated the passage of the IRA last year, the Biden Administration recently enraged climate activists by signing off on the Willow Project, a gargantuan oil drilling plan in Alaska. Biden capped off this betrayal by auctioning off upwards of 70 million acres of water in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore drilling just weeks later. Meanwhile, 26-year-old protestor “Tortuguita” was shot this January by police in Atlanta’s “Cop City,” the first on-record police killing of an environmental activist in the country.
Across the world, frontline communities burn, drown, and are poisoned by the effects of the fossil fuel industry’s actions. The World Health Organization estimates “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year.” With this annihilation as a comparison, simple property destruction looks almost quaint. After all, scientists are calling for swift, radical action. Frankly, we don’t have time for anything less.
But “making a movie about activism is not [the same as] doing it,” said Goldhaber. That’s why he and his co-writers consulted with a wide variety of outsiders, including “activist organizers, rebel journalists, bomb experts, pipeline experts”, to develop the script for maximum impact. Goldhaber has also acknowledged consultation with an anonymous government official, which some have criticized. Other critics have pointed out the movie’s exclusion of perspectives from the Global South, which is disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.
Even so, the film’s creators are aware of the limitations of a Hollywood form. “If I am benefitting from this film at all, I need to be very, very conscious about how I am spreading the wealth of that benefit back to the movement,” said Goldhaber.
That consciousness, and an attention to process in addition to product, is crucial for non-extractivist storytelling—in other words, media that supports the larger climate movement rather than bleeding it dry for views. In a world driven by likes, clicks, and shares, one in which our attention spans are shrinking, this isn’t always easy to accomplish. For Goldhaber, it means approaching activists from a place of support, rather than need—and paying people for their involvement. His team took the approach of asking frontline communities: “Hey, we have this movie, how can we be helpful, what can we do for you?”
How to Blow Up a Pipeline hits theaters tomorrow on Friday, April 7th.