How not to blow up a pipeline


How not to blow up a pipeline

There is no group of people better accustomed to separating art from the artist in the United States than conservatives. If conservatives only consumed popular culture made by fellow conservatives, they would have to subsist on Kid Rock, Clint Eastwood films, and Dick Wolf police procedurals.

This comfort with art made by political adversaries makes internecine fights on the Left about artists who have behaved badly or committed wrongthink all the more enjoyable. The recent New York Times review of a Pablo Picasso exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum as “embarrassing” for its rejection of all avant-garde art in favor of a childish “story time” about how Picasso treated women is only the latest example of this left-wing cultural ouroboros.


It’s in that spirit of superior comfort with the political other that I feel confident in saying conservatives should go out and watch a movie valorizing eco-terrorists. Director/writer/producer Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a movie in which our heroes, a group of eight people, have come to the conclusion that to fight climate change, they need to, well, blow up a pipeline.

Based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Swedish academic Andreas Malm, one of the film’s characters points out in a too-cute cameo of the book that it doesn’t actually tell you how to blow up a pipeline but rather explains why you should.

The characters’ motivations for descending into environmental ultra-radicalism are plausible enough. One of our heroes has terminal leukemia caused by pollution. The conservative character, Dwayne, had his land seized by eminent domain for the benefit of a private company. While he should really blame the liberal Supreme Court justices who enabled such seizures in Kelo v. City of New London, Dwayne has tragically but understandably decided that the pipeline company is at fault. Another character is a rich kid from Portland. Seems realistic to me.

While the director, Goldhaber, is fully on board with the film’s message that it would be good if people went out and started blowing up pipelines, in an interview with Filmmaker magazine, he said his collaborators persuaded him to make the movie a heist film, not a propaganda effort.

“Nobody watches a bank robbery movie from the ’40s and says, ‘These people are trying to get people to go rob banks,’” Goldhaber said. “They see that movie and say, ‘This is a movie that’s talking about structural inequality and getting me to empathize with characters who feel like they have no other option than to rob a bank.’ … I don’t think of the movie as propagandistic because there’s no cause and effect. They don’t blow up a pipeline and solve climate change. The doing of it is the narrative catharsis in the same way that it is in a heist movie. I want this movie to be given the same dramatic permission that genre is given.”

I grant him that permission in large part because the movie’s politics, separated from the very good ticking-clock heist elements, are as absurd as those of real-life groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil that go around gluing themselves to museums.

The opening scene sets the tone for what’s to come. One of our heroes slashes the tires of a parked Cadillac Escalade and justifies her actions by leaving a note that says, “We are living through the sixth mass extinction event of all life on earth.” The note says that “as a wealthy person,” the owner of the car “may escape some of those consequences” but that “if the law will not punish you, then we will.”

Of course, she doesn’t know that the owner of the car is a wealthy person. A common feature in videos of anti-oil protesters blocking highways is that the people most inconvenienced (and most likely to confront the protesters) are not monocle-wearing robber barons but shift workers, parolees trying to get to a court-mandated appointment, first responders, etc.

Our terrorist protagonists consider the possibility that their actions might turn people against them but ultimately dismiss the thought. They’ve picked isolated stretches of pipeline to prevent anyone from being hurt, they plan to shut off the flow of the pipeline to prevent any oil from spilling, and they have concluded that making oil prohibitively expensive is the only way to stop “climate genocide.”

None of this really matters except to drive the plot, although a scene in which the climate warriors compare themselves to Martin Luther King and Jesus should include a flashing caption indicating that this isn’t satire, it’s what eco-radicals actually believe. (“Jesus was a terrorist,” one character excitedly claims during the conversation.)

All of this made the film more enjoyable for me. There’s no smug moral diatribe. We’re simply presented with how these characters (and the filmmakers) see the world.

The enjoyable ideological self-parody is never more fun than in the film’s depiction of the conservative who has joined the terrorist cause. He’s introduced on-screen leading his family in grace (do you get it?). Then, he’s shown open-carrying a handgun, wearing a camouflage American-flag baseball cap, driving a pickup truck, and spitting chewing tobacco (do you get it?!). After offering his companions some deer meat that he has hunted, his contribution to the Jesus/MLK discussion is that they’ll be remembered as “patriots” (Do. You. Get. It.) By the time it’s revealed that the name of the cowboy bar he frequents is “Dixie,” I was ready to throw popcorn at the screen.

The group’s efforts to blow up the pipeline are needlessly complicated and plot-hole ridden but not much more than the plot holes in the excellent 2016 heist film Hell or High Water, which is this film’s moral and narrative equal and opposite. There, two brothers rob banks and kill people in an effort to save the family farm so they can build oil wells on it. Here, a motley band of eco-terrorists blows up an oil pipeline on a stolen family farm to save humanity.

There is an enormous difference between the two in quality. Pipeline was shot on a shoestring budget, and when it was released in theaters in April, it grossed about $850,000. Now on streaming services for a $6 rental, it sometimes looks a bit like a TV movie despite being shot on film and on location, with New Mexico standing in for West Texas. I recognized none of the cast, whose credits are mostly TV work. (Irene Bedard, who has a minor role as the mother of a Native American character who is the group’s nihilistic bombmaker, was the voice of Pocahontas in Disney’s 1995 animated blockbuster.)

It’s not so much despite all of that as because of all of that that I enjoyed the film. The film’s politics are so left-wing that they came across to me as funny, even as the editing, pacing, and tone of the action scenes let the film succeed as a straightforward popcorn thriller.

The film’s final plot twist is the only one that truly strains credulity, but it’s also why I’m not worried about anyone watching this film as an instructional video. Despite all of the name-dropping of real-world explosives such as ammonium nitrate and ETN, I am reasonably confident that any group that was as sloppy as this one in the planning and execution of its explosive sabotage would receive an unwelcome midnight visit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — that is if one of the eight plotters weren’t already a fed.


Andrew Bernard is the Washington correspondent for The Algemeiner.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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