“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” Is a Radical Masterpiece

This How to Blow Up a Pipeline review contains very mild spoilers. It was originally published from The Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is now in theaters. 


The opening credits of How to Blow Up a Pipeline state, “A Film By Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol, and Daniel Garber.” This phrase, usually reserved for directors, here includes Goldhaber’s primary collaborators. It’s a fitting change for a film all about collective action. It’s a fitting change for a movie based on a radical manifesto.

That manifesto, also titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, was written by Andreas Malm and was published last year. It’s a critique of non-violence in climate activism, a suggestion that destruction of property in pursuit of sabotage is not only morally justified but morally urgent. It was relatively well-received considering we live in a society that fetishizes pacifism. But of course it had its detractors — as will this film.

The genius of the adaptation is that it transposes these radical ideas into the entertainment of a heist movie and the pathos of a character study. It does both these things really, really well. All movies are propaganda, and sometimes explicitly political films can end up feeling cheap and manipulative. There is nothing cheap here — except maybe its well-used indie film budget.

Each of the film’s characters represent a different background and a different perspective. There’s Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a college dropout mourning her mother who died in a heat wave, her friend Theo (Sasha Lane), a young woman dying from a rare cancer caused by pollution, and Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson), a do-gooder who’s the most skeptical of the group. Xochitl teams up with her former classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a doom-scrolling film student who wants to do something more meaningful, and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an amateur bomb maker whose home in North Dakota has been overrun with oil workers. Shawn then recruits Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texas local whose land was taken away, and grungy couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), seasoned ecoterrorists when they’re not on a bender.

The film is allowed to argue with itself through these characters, but they never slip into archetypes. A heist movie doesn’t work if you don’t care about the people. An action movie doesn’t work if you don’t care about the people. I cared deeply about each of these people.

Some of that is the sharp writing — the character development is as tight as the action — but it’s also the actors. This is one of the best young casts assembled in years with everyone at that place between up-and-comer and already arrived. There is a palpable chemistry in each individual connection as well as their group dynamic. At first, it felt forced to have such a wide range of people collaborating. By the end, I would have believed this was based on a true story.

The cast and writing are matched by the rest of the craft. The film is shot by Tehillah De Castro who also shot Tahara. With just these two features De Castro has already become one of my favorite DPs. The use of 16mm grounds the film in realism even during the most heightened action moments. The score by Gavin Brivik keeps the tension high. And there’s a reason editor Daniel Garber is one of the names after a film by.

This is my Ocean’s 8 except that it’s actually a good movie. And the stakes aren’t a necklace at the Met Gala but the fate of our planet. Oh and it’s EXPLICITLY GAY. Like very gay. Not only is Theo and Alisha’s relationship central to the film but there are a lot of queer women involved in this project — Ariela Barer, Sasha Lane, producer Isa Mazzei.

And yet the gay heist excitement doesn’t brush over the film’s harsh realities. Some people may find it inspiring, but it’s not suggesting everyone go out and do ecoterrorism. The risk is extremely high for these characters. They exist — we exist — in a system eager to incarcerate people, especially when those people aren’t white. Death is possible, arrest is likely, and the film shows why these individuals decided the risks were worth it. Whether or not ecoterrorism is advisable isn’t the issue here — the film just makes clear that it’s ethical.

The limits of political filmmaking and the limits of personal action are two topics I think about a lot. I want to believe that movies can create change, I want to believe that people can create change. I have evidence for both. And yet sometimes filmmaking and humanity feel hopeless. I left How to Blow Up a Pipeline filled with hope.

Throughout the movie, characters make jokes about the world ending. It’s the sort of casual climate fatalism that’s easy to embrace. But the world doesn’t have to end. It shouldn’t have to end. All we need to do is find some hope. And maybe a couple bombs.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 567 articles for us.

8 Comments

  1. I’m in my happy place with Drew in her happy place, watching and writing about these exciting films at TIFF!

    The ethics of ecoterrorism: I think of the story of the dam at Laxá – dozens of Icelandic farmers claimed responsibility for an explosion in 1970 that derailed the construction of a dam which would have flooded their homes and forced them to move. They used dynamite to do the deed, and then a strict code of silence followed so that the actual perpetrators of the explosion would not be singled out and punished harshly. Instead, everybody basically got a slap on the wrist and the dam was never built. It’s not totally germane to this film but there aren’t too many places to mention Laxá so… yay, quasi-related history!

  2. I first saw news of this film through following Sasha Lane, and was a little on the fence based on that bare bones information, but I am so glad it hits the way you say it does (and I trust your impression, Drew). Can’t wait to see this, and read more of the TIFF write-ups!

  3. While it is depressing to think about the state of our world it did fill me with hope, and validated my anger at the injustice that allows these companies to kill our planet and people.I would recommend it to anyone and everyone, and find the R rating to be a bit of BS.

    I was privileged enough to see this with a Q and A with the director some of the crew behind the film last night. It was a great looking film. The director had nothing but praise for Tehillah and the crew for putting it all together. The director stated that most cinematographers who pitched ideas wanted something dark and moody and Tehillah stood out because she wanted to make a film her dad would like, i.e. a 70s classic heist film.

    The score incorporated natural sounds from the shooting location and worked really to heighten the tension.

    OMG Drew I completely agree, while I love a silly romp like Ocean’s, I much more prefer a heist in which the stakes are high and not about someone’s ex.

    Also I just love seeing queer women if color on screen. Growing up in the 90s/00s queerness was aligned with whiteness in media and felt like something else I wasn’t allowed to be.

  4. I personally think Ocean’s Eight is extremely fun and therefore good, because films are allowed to be silly and fun! and also feature hot women in excellent outfits! but this sounds good also

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