Film Review: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Film Review: How To Blow Up A Pipeline
How to Blow Up a Pipeline poster courtesy Neon

How far are you willing to go to stop the fossil fuel industry from poisoning local communities and disrupting the climate of our entire planet?

That’s the premise of a new independent film called How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a small group of people from different walks of life meet in the desert in Texas to complete a single dangerous mission: blowing up a portion of an oil pipeline.

The film starts by offering a glimpse of each character’s departure for a remote location in Texas that will serve as a base of operations for the aspiring saboteurs. Each of these departure scenes serves in its own way to build the tension implied by the title and theme of the film. There’s a grocery store worker sending mysterious texts about a clandestine meeting on a hidden phone; a housekeeper altering her employer’s surveillance footage to create an alibi; a family man saying a tearful goodbye to his wife as he grabs his gun and leaves on an unspoken but dangerous mission.

These departure scenes do an excellent job of building tension and suspense from the very beginning. In a different film, this would be the part of the story where a motley crew of seasoned operatives come together for a bank heist or possibly a high-tech spy mission. But this story offers none of the glamor and excitement that often goes into the setup of a heist a big-budget thriller. In fact, the tone is very much the opposite: a narrative tension between the mundane and often depressing lives of all of the characters involved and the fact that they all seem to be coming together for a major criminal enterprise, the exact details and motivations of which remain unclear.

This motley crew of saboteurs meets at an abandoned house in the desert and starts the preparations for their self-appointed mission. The amateur explosive expert leads the preparation of the homemade explosives. The other characters help with the explosive preparations and other logistics necessary to carry out the mission. Since they don’t all know each other, they also spend some time getting to know each other and unwinding before the big day.

As the preparations for the sabotage continue, we learn more about each character’s back story through a series of flashbacks. Their motivations for blowing up a pipeline vary significantly, but all arise from the many harms caused by the fossil fuel industry. Each character has their own personal experiences of those harms and a deep anger at the industry that caused them. Anger at the illness caused by fossil fuel infrastructure’s air and water pollution; anger at losing the family home and land to pipeline development and pollution; anger at ecological destruction and “man camps” on indigenous lands; anger at the slow pace and ongoing failure of legal approaches to stopping the tremendous local and global harms caused by the fossil fuel industry.

At the start of the film, the characters are mysterious and somewhat ominous co-conspirators. Some viewers may see them as dangerous criminals due to the tension and suspense of their shared mission to blow up an oil pipeline. As the film progresses, however, the exploration of each character’s back story and motivations makes them increasingly sympathetic and relatable. Even the most ardent opponents of acts of sabotage should be able to feel the humanity of these characters and understand the personal motivations for their actions.

By the time the actual sabotage happened, I found myself very much invested in these characters. This made the twists, turns, and unforeseen developments in their plot to blow up a pipeline seem all the more suspenseful. Would they pull off the attack successfully? Would they live to tell the tale? Would they spend the rest of their lives in prison on charges of domestic terrorism?

From a purely cinematic perspective, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is an instant classic. I’m not a professional film critic, but I’ve watched hundreds of films. I know quality when I see it. This is a quality film, which is especially impressive given the fact that it’s an independent film that probably had a tiny budget. Most if not all of the main characters were well-developed, a challenging feat with numerous key protagonists to keep track of. The plot had enough twists and turns to keep me on the edge of my seat without confusing me or straying into the realm of improbability. The cinematography was striking, especially the inclusion of massive fossil fuel infrastructure in the background in numerous key scenes, creating and reinforcing the palpable sense that the industry itself was a malevolent presence looming large in the background of all of the characters’ lives and communities.

The film also served as a remarkably spot-on homage to the book of the same name. Since the book called How to Blow Up a Pipeline is nonfiction, I wasn’t sure how well a fictional tale would speak to its real-world political themes. The answer is that the film explores the themes of the book surprisingly well. The book contains numerous nonfiction anecdotes of real-life demonstrations, occupations, and acts of sabotage intended to slow down or stop the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. This film feels like it could be a long-form entry in the book’s meandering and colorful narrative about the many ways in which people are resisting the fossil fuel industry in an effort to respond to the climate crisis.

From a political perspective, the viewer’s assessment of the social significance of the film will likely depend on their assessment of the politics that inspired the film. There are several moments where the characters themselves discuss and debate the ethicality of their own actions, but for the most part, the underlying message of the film is clear. The characters, and their communities, and the public at large, have been horribly wronged by the fossil fuel industry’s pollution of local communities and disruption of the planet’s climate. Whether or not the viewer agrees with the characters’ actions in responses to the injustices they experienced, the characters and their actions are portrayed as sympathetic, relatable, and largely successful. This sympathetic and even favorable portrayal of sabotage and saboteurs will likely upset some viewers who embrace other forms of climate action, but reject sabotage. It will also surely enrage viewers who embrace varying degrees of climate denial and agree with the some state and federal governments that sabotage of fossil fuel infrastructure qualifies as a form of domestic terrorism. Therefore, some liberals and conservatives alike may lament the fact that these saboteurs don’t receive their comeuppance at the end of the film, and accuse the film of fomenting acts of real-life acts of sabotage.

Having said that, all but the most ardent supporters of the fossil fuel industry and opponents of sabotage will at least find something compelling, entertaining, and possibly cathartic about this film. Most of the main characters have been directly, personally, grievously harmed by the fossil fuel industry in one way or another. The story of their struggle to process this harm, and take action in response to it, is a story for the ages. Even if you don’t support the idea of sabotage in real life, you may very well enjoy spending an hour and forty minutes watching these characters get their revenge on an industry that did them wrong — and is doing all of us wrong in real life.

Thank you for reading my review of the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline. If you would like to read the nonfiction book that inspired this film, please use my affiliate links to purchase it. If you liked this review and want to read more like it, please subscribe to my free newsletter and follow me on social media for updates on my reviews and other writing projects.

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