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Forrest Goodluck walks through the snow with industrial vats behind him in How to Blow Up a Pipeline Image: Neon

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How to Blow Up a Pipeline: A perfect blend of radical politics and heist-movie thrills

Environmental activism as crime thriller in this new modern masterpiece

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Pete Volk (he/they) is Polygon’s Senior Curation Editor, with a particular love for action and martial arts movies.

In 2021, Swedish author and human ecology professor Andreas Malm published the nonfiction book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which argues that sabotage of industrial facilities and other pollution-causing property is a necessary part of the climate activism movement.

Two years later, director Daniel Goldhaber (Cam) and his co-writers Jordan Sjol and Ariela Barer (who also stars in the movie) have taken that message and run with it, delivering an unconventional and captivating adaptation of the book. Instead of a straightforward conversion of the source material, the movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline builds off the book’s ethos with a fictional scenario, to great success.

In the film, a group of young people from many different backgrounds and areas of the United States comes together to bomb an oil pipeline in West Texas. There are college students, domestic and service workers, a local country boy, and a couple best described as “chaotic punks.” They hail from places like North Dakota, Texas, California, and Chicago. They each bring their own skills to the job, and their own reasons for being there — it’s a true coalition of people working together to make a real difference against the forces wreaking havoc on the environment for their own profit.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline immerses viewers in this group with a rapid-fire opening, following small actions (slashing the tires on a gas-guzzling car and leaving an informational pamphlet explaining why) and preparation for the big job, with a sharp focus on the details. The tactical planning immerses the audience in the process, in much the same ways as Todd Haynes’ masterful anti-DuPont legal thriller Dark Waters: There are notebooks, printed YouTube screengrabs (no phones, no paper trail!), and frequent zooms on the minutiae of the prep process. Even with this intense focus, Goldhaber wastes no time. The film leaves plenty for viewers to fill in, creating a perfect balance to prevent the movie from getting bogged down in the moments before the attack.

Two people wearing gas masks work with chemicals, while one points, in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Image: NEON

One of the most exciting elements of How to Blow Up a Pipeline is that it’s also just a fun crime thriller. Goldhaber expertly uses the language and form of a heist movie to weave in a radical political story in a way that remains exciting and tense throughout, opening the doors to a wider potential audience than the one who might show up for a political documentary or a message-based movie. It’s a propulsive story with clever, punctuated editing, likable characters, and a nonlinear narrative that unveils crucial information over time in the way only the best heist movies can.

Another element of great heist thrillers that How to Blow Up a Pipeline incorporates well is the group itself. They’re a group of charming people who have distinctive roles and personalities, and they’re not a dour bunch. They’re on serious business, but they have fun, like young people do, with japes and jokes (one member of the crew, rolling an explosive barrel, exclaims, “Oh, she big!!!”), lighthearted razzing of each other, and plenty of gallows humor. They’re full of energy, righteous anger, and life. Seeing the group first get together is a treat, and when the movie’s defining action unfolds, it’s thrilling and tense.

Xochi (Ariela Barer) runs her hand along an oil pipeline in How to Blow Up a Pipeline Image: Neon

Crucially, How to Blow Up a Pipeline shows that environmental activism isn’t just for academics. This is clear from the makeup of the group — most come from working-class backgrounds — but it also comes up directly in the characters’ interactions with each other and the world.

Goldhaber shows how each member of the group gets radicalized, through a perfectly placed series of flashbacks that punctuate the action in the present day and broaden our understanding of the characters. Some have family members who died due to climate and pollution issues. Some are caretakers concerned about the people in their lives who are at risk from the changes to our atmosphere. Some are sick themselves. The movie also depicts doomscrolling as a potentially radicalizing activity, staying with a character looking at his Twitter timeline as the urgency and desperation of the situation fully dawns on him.

The local member of the group, Dwayne (Jake Weary), a country boy from Odessa, Texas, who dips chaw and wears a camo hat sporting the American flag, is in a land dispute over a pipeline being built on his property. He knows how much destruction it will bring to his home, his community, and his family. His house no longer has drinkable water, and he fears for the future. He tried to fight the company in court, but eminent domain prevailed. (How to Blow Up a Pipeline deftly shows that many of the members of the group tried to enact change the “right” way — protesting, filing lawsuits, etc. — but their actions weren’t enough to stop the pipeline on the necessary timeline.) In a flashback, an academic documentarian interviews Dwayne, asking insensitive questions in an effort to “humanize” him and his family’s struggles, as if the precarity of their situation wasn’t enough. Through this moment and others, How to Blow Up a Pipeline exposes the futility of “raising awareness” as meaningful action.

Theo (Sasha Lane) and Alisha (Jayme Lawson) embrace in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Image: Neon
The group of young people huddle around a campfire in How to Blow Up a Pipeline Image: Neon
The young people in How to Blow Up a Pipeline sit on top of and in front of a white van. One leans against it. The background is the desolate West Texas desert. Image: Neon

All of the lead performers excel in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, but the standout has to be Forrest Goodluck (The Revenant) as Michael, a quiet, awkward self-taught demolitions expert from North Dakota. Michael does most of the group’s bomb-building, and obtains supplies after getting a job at a local market. It’s a difficult role: His awkwardness puts him at a distance from the others, but his intensity and his commitment to taking down the pipeline build a deep trust with the rest of the group. Goodluck strikes that balance perfectly, bringing a righteous, seething rage to the kind of star-making performance that suggests a promising career to come.

There’s one crucial place where How to Blow Up a Pipeline diverges from most crime-thriller narratives, much to its benefit: There is no real police or investigator plotline corresponding to the saboteurs’ planning. A law enforcement officer shows up later on, but as a minor part of another character’s narrative — the movie truly focuses on the young people and their plan, with great results.

While the prep phase introduces the group members and their motives, the action really kicks off when they enact the plan. How to Blow Up a Pipeline instantly becomes tense, with sparse use of camera movements and quick zooms (on a burning wick, on barrels, on the pipeline) that offer a tightly controlled, DIY feel. The movie builds and builds in anticipation until it’s ready to explode, and as with many good crime thrillers, the nonlinear narrative allows the outcome to be withheld until the moment of greatest impact.

A man in a parka walks in the snow as flames roar from a smokestack ahead of him in How to Blow Up a Pipeline Image: Neon

The film is also filled with striking images. Goldhaber and director of photography Tehillah De Castro make the most of America’s vast landscapes, hinting at a past beauty ruined by industrialization. All of the settings — snowy North Dakota, wide-open West Texas, sunny Southern California — are depicted with factories billowing smoke in the background, inviting viewers to imagine what the environments would look like if they were being treated with care.

There’s a shot early in the movie of the group driving down a West Texas highway where oil rigs dot the scenery like cattle or horses in the distance. Another moment has Xochi (co-writer Ariela Barer) watching two members of the crew digging a rectangular, grave-sized hole for an oil drum in the present day, then flashing back to a coffin being lowered into a grave at a funeral, where she and another character mourn as an industrial compound fumes with smoke in the background. It’s a simple, beautiful visual parallel that cuts right to the point: Environmental disaster is all-encompassing and already here, and the movie weaves that in expertly, both visually and in the characters’ stories.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is the rare movie that effectively weaponizes a radical political message by marrying it to conventional genre storytelling. It feels like a game-changer: the kind of movie that will inspire artists and budding activists alike for generations to come. It’s exciting, tense entertainment with an explosive, memorable final line of dialogue. 2023 has been a great year in movies so far, but this one will be hard to beat.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline debuts in theaters on April 7.