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Review: How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

Directed by: Daniel Goldhaber

Premise: A group of climate activists plot to destroy an oil pipeline in rural Texas.

What Works: How to Blow Up a Pipeline is activist filmmaking. The moviemakers have a particular political point to convey and that argument is well dramatized in ways that are rhetorically and dramatically engaging. The picture follows a group of strangers brought together by concerns for pollution and climate change and who plot to destroy an oil pipeline. The film has a relatively large cast and the opening does an excellent job introducing and establishing the characters. In short order we’re introduced to all the principal players and get a sense of their disposition. The film then moves forward with the activists putting their plan into action while periodically flashing back to flesh out the characters’ backgrounds and motives. Everyone is distinct and has a credible backstory that has led them to this point. The spread of characters is interesting, including people of different racial and cultural backgrounds; one of them is a white conservative defending his land against eminent domain, another is a college dropout, and two others are gleeful anarchists. The variety of characters serves a rhetorical function, allowing the audience to find some point of identification and creating the image of a cross section of America coming together against the fossil fuel industry. As the title implies, How to Blow Up a Pipeline works through the steps of a terroristic plot. This is very tense. The filmmakers create a vivid impression of how dangerous this is and how likely it is that these people will get themselves killed. This begets an interesting tension. The sympathetic motives, the danger, and the efforts of the activists put the audience on their side while acknowledging that this is terrorism. That ought to make us rethink how that word is applied.

What Doesn’t: Extreme or radical activism tends to rest on simplistic worldviews and the rhetoric of How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The activist characters acknowledge that what they’re doing is terrorism and that their scheme will hurt everyday people and specifically the poor. The activists, and by extension the filmmakers, argue that the ends justify the means. While they are right about the stakes of the climate crisis, what neither the characters nor the filmmakers acknowledge is the futility of the plan. They hope to disrupt oil production and raise the cost of doing business, thereby pricing fossil fuels out of the market. But the fossil fuel industry is subsidized and protected by the federal government and their product is embedded into the economy. The destruction of a pipeline is an annoyance to the oil company but not an existential threat and the activist’s larger plan is disconnected from reality. The movie doesn’t acknowledge that.

Disc extras: Available on streaming services.

Bottom Line: How to Blow Up a Pipeline demonstrates an important rule of agitprop filmmaking: it must be entertaining. This is a tense thriller and it succeeds as dramatic filmmaking which is why it works as rhetoric. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is also simplistic. It doesn’t engage with the complexities of terrorism.

Episode: #977 (December 17, 2023)