Review: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Is violence and destruction the only logical — and even ethical — response to the climate crisis? Is standing by and doing nothing — or only the bare minimum — a far worse crime than what might be called “eco-terrorism”? Based on Andreas Malm’s nonfiction book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline explodes the idea that even civil disobedience is enough to fight the earth’s decline at human hands. This taut thriller from CAM director Daniel Goldhaber falls somewhere between an exciting heist movie and a grim documentary about the state of the environment, somehow both wildly entertaining and utterly sobering.

Gavin Brivik’s pulsing synth score made my heart race, but How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t just infused with a sense of urgency; it’s inherent to its entire premise. Though many films try to imbue themselves with a similar sense of gravity, Goldhaber’s movie earns it. Time is running short, not only for the characters here in their mission, but also for all of us watching offscreen and living on this planet in peril. Almost every scene in the film’s “present,” where a group of eight young men and women attempt to disrupt the transport of fuel and wreak havoc on oil prices to tank the industry, is filled with stress and a sense of immediacy. Only flashbacks for each character provide both the rare respite from the tension and backstories that help explain their motivations. 

Each person in How to Blow Up a Pipeline has traveled to west Texas with the intent of destroying an oil pipeline, united by common cause but with different reasoning and experience for why they’re willing to risk their lives. Whether it’s the death of a loved one caused by extreme weather or an oil company stealing family land under the guise of “eminent domain,” everyone feels righteous in their extreme response. 

Other than their common cause, there’s little overlap in the Venn diagram of these characters. Xochitl (co-writer and producer Ariela Barer) slashes the tires of gas guzzlers in California, while Michael (Forrest Goodluck) picks fights with oil workers in North Dakota. Theo (Sasha Lane) is more committed to the fight than her girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), but they make the trip together. A second couple, Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), are hard-partying progressive Portland kids, but good ol’ boy-esque family man Dwayne (Jake Weary) is someone you might assume votes red. They’re all drawn together by videographer Shawn (Marcus Scribner), who connects the group and knows that a movie alone can’t change the world. 

At times resembling a film version of The Anarchist Cookbook, How to Blow Up a Pipeline earns the instructional feel of its title while oozing dramatic tension. It’s a vital call to action, complete with enough details to give those it might inspire the starting elements in taking action themselves — or at least how to begin their search on whatever the dark web’s version of Google is. If any other crime were involved, the method could feel irresponsible to those who worry about things like that, but here, it’s the moral approach. 

How to Blow Up a Pipeline sometimes looks like a Steven Soderbergh movie with its editing, use of color, and camerawork, but this isn’t Ocean’s Eleven. Beyond the more serious tone — and higher stakes — this movie doesn’t have a heist executed by characters who are brought together by their unique, well-developed skills. They’re scrappy, determined people in their 20s and 30s who learn what they need to do to commit sabotage because they have to, for both their own sake and for ours. Their inexperience with every bit of the process only heightens the tension. We never really worried about Don Cheadle’s Basher in the Ocean’s trilogy, but we’re genuinely concerned for these eight characters, and pray that their desire to do the right thing is enough to keep them safe from the explosives they’re working with.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline should be a depressing experience, dominated by the feeling of the world’s end. Yet while Goldhaber’s movie is clear about the track the earth is on and the big actions that have to be taken to fix it, it also provides a feeling of hope. If this disparate, desperate group can come together to save the earth, maybe we all have a chance. 


“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is out tomorrow in theaters.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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