Early last month, arthouse theaters across America screened a strikingly titled independent feature: How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Despite its name, the film is not a documentary-style instruction manual showing viewers how to complete what the title suggests á la The Anarchist Cookbook. Instead, Pipeline is a narrative feature following the exploits of a ragtag group of naive, wannabe revolutionaries as they attempt to, obviously, blow up an oil pipeline.
Immediately after Pipeline’s release, mainstream outlets lauded the film and its message. UK’s The Independent reviewer Clarisse Loughrey said the film “speaks to a generation’s anger.” The Guardian’s Wendy Ide stated that “it’s hard to think of another film as emphatically, passionately and furiously of the moment as this one.”
This is not the first time Hollywood has sympathetically explored the light-hearted topic of eco-terrorism. Kelly Reichardt’s similarly themed 2013 thriller Night Moves follows another group of aspiring bomb makers, this time trying to blow up a dam. Master filmmaker Paul Scharader took a crack at the issue in his 2017 drama First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke.
Both films received near universal acclaim. However, How to Build a Pipeline differentiates itself from other environmentalist films in its source material. While an original story, Pipeline takes its ideological basis and title from a 2021 manifesto written by neo-Marxist professor Andreas Malm, who advocates for civilians to “damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices,” all in an effort to reverse climate change.
It does not take a second glance to realize the nuttiness of Malm’s statement. If Malm wants to destroy C02 devices, does that mean he wants to carpet-bomb every SUV dealership? How about cows? Does their release of ungodly amounts of methane make them legitimate targets for incendiary devices?
Concerningly, to some North Carolinians, Malm’s ideas hold some weight. Less than a week after Pipeline’s theatrical release, students in Chapel Hill staged a walk-out in support of Jamie Marsicano, a UNC Law student charged with domestic terrorism after participating in an organized attack on an Atlanta police training center construction site. Some of those who took part in the attack did so over the construction site’s clearing of forest to make way for the facility.
Other forms of infrastructure have also come under attack. In December, unknown persons attacked two Duke Energy-owned substations in Moore County, North Carolina, leaving the surrounding areas without electricity for days. Currently, there have been no arrests and no concrete motives established.
Pipeline is another example of the slow mainstreaming of political violence in everyday life, something Malm advocates for in his writings. Pipeline’s director Daniel Goldhaber spoke on how Malm’s book inspired the film’s content at the Toronto International Film Festival last Fall.
“I think it’s really important that we make movies and tell stories that challenge what we should do about [climate change]…that is an urgent conservation to have,” said Goldhaber.
Despite Goldhaber’s claim that he only wants to start a “conversation” on environmentalist tactics, Pipeline appears to be a full-fledged endorsement of Malm’s advocacy for violence, intended to convince the audience to take similar actions, or at least view those who do as admirable heroes.
The devil is in the details
Distributed by Neon — the indie film label behind the American releases of previous hits I, Tonya, and Parasite — How to Blow Up a Pipeline treats environmental concerns as justification for abhorrent political behavior. Set primarily in West Texas, Pipeline tells the tale of a diverse group of eight activists working to destroy an oil pipeline by way of explosive devices.
To what ends? Just as Malm explains in his writings, group member Shawn (Marcus Scribner) states the purpose of the bombing is to “make oil economically unviable in the marketplace.”
The filmmakers attempt to justify the group’s actions by providing some of the supposed protagonists with sympathetic sob story backgrounds: the mother of group leader Xochitl, portrayed by co-screenwriter Ariela Barer, died in a global warming heat wave; Theo (Sasha Lane) caught leukemia after growing up by a nearby oil refinery; and Dwayne’s (Jake Weary) Texas property was taken via eminent domain for the sake of pipeline construction.
In response, the group travels to a deserted Texan landscape to blow up a recently built oil pipeline. Throughout the film, the group justifies their violent actions to the audience. In one scene, the group converses in a dilapidated living room, bizarrely comparing themselves to Boston Tea Party participants and naming themselves “patriots.” Michael (Forrest Goodluck) embraces the “terrorist” moniker, stating, “If the American Empire calls us ‘terrorists,’ then we’re doing something right.”
Despite having no formal training, Michael proceeds to irresponsibly create a homemade incendiary device, risking his life in the process. When asked if the bomb will blow up in their faces, Michael simply responds, “I don’t care.”
Pipeline’s gravest sin is reserved not for the group’s violence against infrastructure, but against the personal property of everyday people. In the film’s opening scene, Xochitl slashes the tires of a random SUV parked on the street. Xochitl justifies her action in a flier placed on the vandalized SUV’s windshield, stating, “If the law will not punish you, then we will.” Furthermore, group member Logan (Lukas Gage) states, “revolution has collateral damage” in response to a question of whether normal citizens would be economically hurt from the fallout of the pipeline’s destruction.
Furthermore, those standing in the way of the pipeline’s destruction, be it mainstream environmental activists or pipeline workers, are vilified by the film. In one scene, Xochitl complains to a small group of fossil fuel divestment activists that their efforts will do nothing to save humanity from extinction. Similarly, Michael chastises his mother (Irene Bedard) for her nonviolent environmental activism, calling her a “coward.” Towards the film’s climax, oil-company employees who confront the group are portrayed as cartoonish gun-toting rednecks. As a group member flees the scene, one of the workers opens fire with a handgun.
Pipeline further alludes to the strategy of violence being used in the future. In a mid-credits scene, another group of terrorists plants a bomb on a random yacht, pasting the same flier on a post as the one left by Xochitl in the film’s opening.
Viewers are left with the conclusion that the filmmaker would not be disappointed if the violent actions seen in the film were replicated in the real world, attacking those who commit the unforgivable crime of owning devices that run on fossil fuels. If you believe in the merits of non-violent advocacy and democracy, which I believe you do, let’s all hope that is not the case.