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TIFF 2022: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

The exciting ethical balancing act of extreme environmental activism
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This alternative take on a heist movie explores extreme environmental activism. COURTESY OF TIFF
This alternative take on a heist movie explores extreme environmental activism. COURTESY OF TIFF

How to Blow Up a Pipeline delivers on the promise of its name. It’s surprisingly close to an actual guide, worthy of praise and respect for how intelligently it handles the radical subject matter of extreme environmental activism.

The film is based on a non-fiction book of the same name, which argues that sabotage is a legitimate form of environmental activism. But the movie is far from a documentary; director Daniel Goldhaber and collaborators Ariela Barar, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber — all four of whom interestingly share the primary “a film by” credit — embed a complex discussion about the ethics of eco-terrorism into a tight, focused, and relentless thriller. 

The crew of the film’s ‘heist’ puts the book’s ideas into action, aiming to blow up sections of a Texas pipeline in order to spike oil prices around the world, thus forcing tangible action against fossil fuels. 

The ensemble of characters draws from a variety of contexts, from working-class middle America to college academia and an Indigenous reservation. Each character represents a different facet of the climate conversation, and the environmental crisis negatively impacts each of them in a unique way. 

How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s greatest strength and point of originality is how propulsive and exciting it is. It wastes no time — within minutes, the characters are on their way to a shack in Texas to construct huge explosives away from the rest of society. The film plays out exactly like a heist: different team members have different specialties so they divide up into groups and pull off several risky tasks, all while avoiding detection.

Things go right and wrong, plans change on the fly, and the characters make mistakes and experience close shaves. Not every character is super compelling, but there are several standout performances, including Forrest Goodluck’s reserved, layered performance, as well as those of Kristine Froseth and Lukas Gage, who give an unreserved and funny portrayal of an angsty couple. 

The filmmakers and most of the cast are quite young, and the film edges into what is occasionally unconvincing, unrestrained young adult territory — but it generally feels pretty authentic, which is a major compliment. 

Despite the film’s thrilling depiction of a dour topic, it cannot be accused of exploitation: How to Blow Up a Pipeline’s genre trappings create a framework that is arguably more accessible and just as informative as a purely informational documentary might have been. 

Fusing the book’s essence into an original idea fit for a different medium is an accomplishment in creative adaptation. It’s got an incredible, pounding synthesizer score; it’s shot on 16mm film in a style reminiscent of 70s thrillers like Sorcerer; and is edited with a sharp rhythm that gracefully ties the nonlinear narrative together. It took a while before the carefully built-up tension really started hitting me, but once it did, the moments of release were breathtaking and immensely satisfying.

The film also manages a delicate balance — it’s not propaganda, urging the audience to wage guerrilla warfare against fossil fuel infrastructure, but it’s also not painting the characters negatively for disrupting the order of society. In a similar movie, Kelly Reichardt’s 2013 film Night Moves, the lead characters blow up a dam halfway through the movie and spend the rest languishing with guilt and regret. Pushing feelings of guilt seems natural in a narrativization of such a controversial act, but How To Blow Up a Pipeline refreshingly, and radically, avoids making such an implicit judgement. 

The characters’ backstories build a pretty fleshed-out examination of the various perspectives on whether their mission is morally justifiable or not. Their conversations — including a drunken one early on in the movie about whether they’ll be considered “terrorists” and whether the term is inherently negative — directly shed light on many of the most sensitive questions of climate action but never feel manipulative. The film leaves it in the audience’s hands to decide whether or not the crimes are actually justified. 

Amidst an increasingly bleak climate crisis, eco-terrorism is a complicated issue, which has no easy answers. The film embraces this ambiguity, and its lack of explicit perspective on morality feels far more radical and impactful than a piece clearly bent on persuading the audience.