If ever climate activists wanted something to mark Earth Day 2023 and boost their campaign to stop the damage being caused to the environment by the fossil fuel industry, the cinema release this weekend of the eco-thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline could hardly be more perfect.
The film is set in Texas, in the heart of oil country. The action takes place in the present day and the story is pretty straight forward. A disparate group of eight young people, each with a reason to do so, come together to bomb a piece of oil infrastructure in the remote west of the state.
The film takes us through the sequence of events and gives a backstory for the characters, to explain what brought them together to commit what is a serious criminal act. The backstory sequences are intercut with the main story arc which takes a bit of getting used to but they help make the characters three dimensional.
There’s no ringleader as such but each of them is ferociously motivated to take radical action.
Bomb maker Michael (played by Forrest Goodluck) is a young Native American who resents the oil rigs destroying his homeland. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) and Theo (Sasha Lane) are victims of the effect big oil has had on them and their communities. Dwayne (Jake Weary) blames the government for requisitioning his land for the installation of the pipeline. Of the others, Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is rather reluctantly persuaded to be involved, film maker Shawn (Marcus Scribner) wants to do something with more impact while Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) have carried out previous direct environmental protests.
As a genre film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is nothing out of the ordinary. Director Daniel Goldhaber builds the tension nicely and there are the obligatory moments when it looks as though the whole plan will be derailed.
Michael has problems building the fuses and detonators for the bombs. Putting them in position is very difficult – they are packed into oil drums, are heavy and awkward to move – and this leads to an accident in which Alisha is badly hurt. Logan and Rowan nearly mess up at a crucial part, when they are discovered by oil workers carrying out an inspection; and there’s a nice plot twist.
What marks it out is that this is one of the most political films of recent years. It’s based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Swedish author and environmentalist Andreas Malm, who argued the climate crisis was severe enough to make what he called “intelligent sabotage” necessary.
The film makes that case. The characters are driven by anger and by moral certainty. They are aware of the risks; “They’re going to call us terrorists”, says Theo. But they are certain they are doing the right thing; “It’s an act of self defence”, says Xochitl. They are careful to choose targets that won’t harm either people or the land. The film doesn’t ask any questions about the consequences of their actions, beyond all eight characters accepting they will be affected, nor does it attempt to present any counter arguments. It’s all the more effective for that.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline will appeal to many young activists. It will annoy a lot of people because of its message; and it challenges the complacency of the majority who have yet to become engaged. It’s in cinemas now.