This explosive new film thrills and inspires, but it doesn’t explain how activists like my parents coped with the uncertainty and isolation that follow acts of sabotage.
I’m going to be honest — I was prepared to be annoyed. There was an edgy, beautiful, but unwashed, teenagers vibe about the trailer that set my teeth on edge. But when I sat down to watch “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” I was not annoyed.
I laughed. I cried. I sat on the edge of my sofa. I was moved by the way the group of unlikely friends and fellow travelers became a team preparing for a bold and impactful action. I also found myself unprepared for the plot twists, triple crosses and rush of genuine affection I felt for the young activists portrayed by recognizable young actors.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” tells the story of eight young people who find one another and conspire to blow up an oil pipeline in Texas. In a series of flashbacks, the viewers learn enough about their backstories to understand their motivations and skill-sets. (Dwayne knows the local geography; Michael can build bombs; Logan and Rowan are up for anything illegal; and Xochitl handles big picture planning and bringing the group together, etc.) The flashback montages — tight and full of information — wouldn’t be out of place in any standard heist movie from “X-Men” to “Ocean’s Eleven.”
While the story of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is fictional, it is an outgrowth of the 2021 book of the same name by Swedish environmental justice activist Andreas Malm. More manifesto than how-to, the book argues for the type of action the movie depicts. A more accurate title for the book would have been “This Is Why I Think You Should Blow Up a Pipeline,” but it wouldn’t have sold nearly as many copies.
That said, the movie doesn’t explain much about actually blowing up a pipeline either. But there is a winking reference to the hyperbolic machismo of Malm’s title. When Logan — the punk rock, rich boy character — meets college-boy-organizer Shawn in a used book store, the latter is thumbing through Malm’s treatise. Logan tells him the book isn’t a how-to manual, and Shawn responds that he’s trying to learn as much as possible, referencing a “project” in Texas. Logan then asks “What kind of project?” and soon they are in it together. So much for security culture and protecting against agents provocateurs.
Would-be environmental activists wanting to blow up pipelines will have more luck consulting the dusty corners of the internet, disaffected chemistry teachers and “The Anarchist Cookbook” for practical tips and recipes.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a different kind of climate catastrophe movie. There is no zombie horde, no nuclear-infused, super-sized gorilla, no metaphorical asteroid standing in for the end of the world. It is not set in a dystopian future wasteland. The bad guys aren’t Immortan Joe and his War Boys controlling what little natural resources remain.
In this film (and in our lives) the wasteland is here and now. It is killing some people and making life uncomfortable or unlivable for the protagonists and their families. One character, Theo, has a cancer that leaves her gaunt and coughing up blood. She can’t afford the medicine. In a telling moment, a few of the team are at Dwayne’s West Texas home looking over maps. His wife offers beer. Shawn asks for water instead, but she replies: “We’re out of water,” without sentiment or apology. “Beer it is, then.” It is just a fact. Like the exposure to chemical plants and constant truck exhaust responsible for the bloom of rare cancer in Theo, or the heat wave that killed Xochitl’s mother.
These young people have had enough. They find one another and try to do something they hope will have an immediate and lasting impact on the companies that profit from polluting the planet. They are careful and methodical in their planning and take pains to avoid violence to human beings or more pollution to the Earth.
The young people repeatedly put themselves in danger rather than risk others getting hurt. And they have all the discussions you’d expect a group of thoughtful, impassioned, young climate activists to have: “Will we be labeled terrorists?” “Is that really a bad thing (weren’t Martin Luther King and Jesus called terrorists too?)” “Have we really exhausted all legal and incremental means to make a difference?” “What if our actions make life harder for poor people?”
They don’t answer all these questions with words, but they work them out in the course of the action with their lives, their futures and their sacrifice.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” moves fast and makes you care deeply. As I watched, I thought about how easy it is to applaud or trash the actions of others, and how hard it is to act for oneself and with others. Ultimately, though, I thought a lot about the consequences of actions.
I found my mind turning to all the people in my life who have cased joints, assembled crews, wrote manifestos and headed off into the early morning light to do the thing they knew needed doing. For the Catholic left activists I know and love, jail was always at the end of that journey — jail and a disquieting question about efficacy. Did it matter? Did anyone know? Did it make a difference?
For my parents and their community of Plowshares activists, faith and friendship answered the questions and soothed the doubts. And I felt the absence of those two saving elements in this film.
You want the recipe for risky property-damaging actions? In my experience, it is faith that your actions are a few stitches in a larger tapestry of change-making, as well as friendships that fill your commissary and mailbox and protect you from the kinds of nasty deals the FBI tries to exact.
The closest to a real-life pipeline blower-upper I know is Jessica Reznicek, and she was sentenced to eight years in prison in June 2021. Once she’s done with that sentence, she will have to navigate three more years of probation and will owe more than $3 million in restitution to Energy Transfer LLC. She needs a lot of support to get through this next decade of prison and probation, and there is nothing in the film on how to do that.
There is some love and affection between members of the crew, both in romantic relationships and well-rendered friendships. But there is no common vision, language or belief. In one telling moment, Alisha (who often raises the big questions to the crew) points out: “You want to burn it down in an hour, but it takes a lifetime to build something new.” Michael, the bomb maker, counters, “I’m not trying to rebuild anything.”
Their team is a means to an end. So, when it’s over, I had to wonder: Will they be friends, community, an affinity group ready to do it again differently — and better — next time, after evaluation and reflection? The tidy ending makes that seem unlikely. They’ll always be looking over their shoulder, worrying that the consequences of this brave act will catch up with them. And that fear, that having something to lose, hurts the action.
I found myself thinking about Betty Medsger’s masterful, real-life heist book “The Burglary,” which tells the story of the nonviolent peace activists who broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971. The documents they stole exposed the bureau’s dirty tricks against Black student activists, antiwar activists, conscientious objectors and a host of other political dissidents who were targeted by a secret counterintelligence program. Although the eight burglars swore to carry their secret escapade to the grave, seven of them spoke to Medsger.
What the book makes clear is that these activists suffered from their silence for 40 years. Although they had built a community to do the action, they had to return to individual loneliness afterwards. As one of the activists, Susan Smith, told Medsger, the secrecy was a loss: “There wasn’t the sense of solidarity waiting for you, that kind of euphoria. I missed the joy … That was very hard, that sense of isolation.”
Remembering that quote, I felt worried for these fictional young people for whom I — over the course of two hours — developed such deep affection and admiration.
The film doesn’t devote much celluloid (or bytes or whatever movies are made with these days) to the dynamic, devoted and courageous climate justice movement that is doing something right now — on the streets, in the trenches, blocking the trains, sabotaging the polluters somewhere in the world at every moment of every day. The activists that Shawn and Xochitl meet in college are portrayed as incrementalists trying to persuade a system that isn’t listening, or divesting from polluters or converting to solar anytime soon. Their mutual rejection of that slow-mo activism united Xochitl and Shawn, and led them to the West Texas oil field. Fair enough. But, make no mistake, there is so much more to the climate justice movement than that annoying long-haired white dude in the film.
Everyone who watches “How To Blow Up A Pipeline” and sheds even a little tear, should be moved to action too. I am moved to drive less and scorn SUVs more, curb my resource-use and build an affinity group for impactful action. There are lots of groups, movements and efforts to join for community, action and reflection.
At the same time, I am going to take all the activist energy stirred up in me by “How To Blow Up A Pipeline” and put it toward writing to Jessica Reznicek. I’m also going to buy a “water protector, not terrorist” T-shirt. And I’m hoping that doing these two things will help her — a real-life pipeline saboteur — feel connected, remembered and appreciated. Write to other political prisoners too. Share with them. Write to anyone in prison or jail. It is an inhuman system, and a letter from a stranger can remind people of their humanness.
Do something else too. Or more than one something! The list of what to do to help save the planet is really long, and doing it with others makes it less of a to-do list and more of a sustainable life choice.
Whatever you do, though, please don’t just watch “How To Blow Up a Pipeline.” Take real action.