Comic books and video games are fine and all, but it’s nice to see political theory, the most popular genre of all, get adapted for the movies. There are plenty of documentaries based on the lives of political thinkers, but the book-to-movie pipeline isn’t as common—the most recent examples I can think of (sans a Google search) are I Am Not Your Negro, an essential visual essay based on an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript, and the decidedly less essential Freakonomics, a neoliberal propaganda piece making eyes at the market. But even less common is the How to Blow Up a Pipeline approach: adapting theory to fiction.
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The film is based on a book of the same name, an environmentalist treatise by Andreas Malm that argues for violence in climate activism. The book doesn’t teach you how to blow up a pipeline, despite the promise of the title, but it wouldn’t rat you out if you tried. The film, on the other hand, follows a fictional group of activists actually doing the thing. It still doesn’t teach you how, but seeing the process is more instructive than justifying it in that regard.
The story picks up in medias blowup as a group of young activists assemble their bombs in a shack in the Texan desert. Director Daniel Goldhaber, whose first feature was the tight horror/thriller Cam, immediately starts building a thriller par excellence. The camera, handheld and trembling, sometimes dares to get close, pushing in on shaking hands shaping chemical reactions, or else stares from afar, keeping a safe distance while the materials are transported, ratcheting up the stress of the work as a prickly electronica score thrums with nervous energy. Editor Daniel Garber arranges the sequence flawlessly, cutting not only to cultivate anxiety but also to punctuate scenes provocatively. He cuts away from one discussion just after a righteously beleaguered activist says he’s not concerned with rebuilding what’s destroyed, countering criticisms of radical property destruction with a swift “we just need to stop what’s killing us.” From its first moments, the film weaves a stirring medley of the personal, the political, and the tense.
It gets overly didactic when spelling out the book’s thesis, though. The film traffics in pithy, quotable lines concerning systems of oppression, the futility of incrementalism, and the ahistorical tendency to pin the success of progressive political movements on non-violent action alone, among other things. When a character whose land is being seized for the pipeline mispronounces “eminent domain,” another character stops to explain the term to him—a bald attempt at educating viewers who the film expects to be similarly ignorant. The screenplay’s heart is in the right place (debatably controversially), but distilling theory into dialogue carries the risk of soundbite activism.
The film’s structure is effective but likewise a bit pat. As the group goes about their sabotage, the film sporadically flashes back to their backstories—Xochitl’s mom died in a heat wave, Michael’s reservation was defiled by an oil rig, Theo developed cancer from living next to a chemical plant. It’s all very cut and dry, limited in detail by the brevity of a thriller, but the stories are acutely grounded, and the cast’s performances really sell their anguish. The flashbacks are also used to delay catharsis: an activist drops a bomb, cut!, flashback before it hits ground; now sit in uncertainty until you find out what happens. It’s a great suspense tool.
This structure does lose the plot a little—or the atmosphere, rather. Like Do the Right Thing heating up racial conflict with a sweltering summer day, How to Blow Up a Pipeline evokes thematic depth from its setting: the Texan desert, a vast dearth of life, an echo of the oppressive, empty nihilism facing the activists and the planet. Cutting away from that to further plot complications, as the film does in its third act—one flashback raises doubts as to whether an activist is an informant—sidelines the mood for general thriller tension. Because the flashbacks are so brief, there’s little time to feel the informant’s fear of the carceral system like the desert helps us feel the drip-fed despair of climate disaster. The excitement edges out the edifying.
But the film overcomes these frayed edges. Taking a more blatant step than Do the Right Thing, which has prompted much discussion over what the right thing is, How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes a radical declarative statement: violence is the right thing. When the greedy are eating the world, sabotage is self-defense. The thrill of watching the operation unfold is nothing compared to the film’s greatest success—the fire-lighting thrill of the ecoterrorists having a point.