DIFF 2023 Review | How to Blow Up a Pipeline Ends Up Being A Little Too Neat and Tidy

Environmental issues dominate our time, from political programmes, to news stories, to art. Unfortunately for the latter, much of this art feels more like a lecture than anything else. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Daniel Goldhaber’s adaption of Andreas Malm’s manifesto bucks this trend by opening with a direct action sequence as college activist Xochitl (Ariela Barer) slashes an SUV’s tires. This isn’t a random act of violence as Xochitl thoughtfully leaves a note stating that if the government won’t punish polluters, she will. 

We are quickly introduced to the rest of Xochitl’s crew that take up residency in an abandoned Texas home to build homemade bombs with the intention of, you guessed it, blowing up a pipeline. We jump back and forth in time, watching this polycule of planeteers come together from across the country and probable political divides, to take down the polluters that have impacted them all. The characters, for the most part, are well developed apart from one YungBlud lookalike who is mainly used for unnecessary comic relief as the film’s funnier moments are underpinned by targeted anger, such as a tweet in response to an ecological disaster urging people to #vote.

The stories of Michael (Forrest Goodluck) and Dwayne (Jake Weary – the bully from the Fred movies) are particularly captivating. Michael lives with his mother at a North Dakota nature conservancy but struggles to hold conversations afk. Unwilling to sit idly by as fossil fuel firms pillage the world around them for every last resource, he begins building homemade bombs in the shadow of an oil derrick that blots out the cresting sun in the film’s most poignant image. Dwayne is an anti-government father-to-be whose land was taken by the government and placed in the palms of big oil. He meets the other backyard bombers when a documentary crew want to use his story, free of charge, to raise awareness of these issues. 

While these cross-cultural characters may not seem to have much in common, apart from wanting to blow up a pipe, their interactions rarely get heated apart from one scene when Dwayne takes offense to Jesus being labelled a terrorist. Even with any possible Trumpian tensions swept under a rug, it seems like all might not go to plan for the amateur activists who didn’t pack warm clothes for winter in Texas but remembered their printed-out YouTube tutorials.


The camera consistently edges closer and closer to the protagonists as time slips away and the pressure rises. One particular scene in which a bomb is being lowered into the ground is framed beautifully with cramped characters’ faces floating in and out of frame as the distance between life and death evaporates. An explosive tanker begins to slip before a rousing quick cut takes us back in time again in an expertly edited moment. Sadly when we jump back to the present day the action is already over in what is a major cop-out for an ACAB movie. 

From here, How to Blow Up a Pipeline slips like a pelican on the gulf of Mexico. The conscientiousness of the conspirators displayed in the opening scene feels less realistic and more like a necessary evil (or necessary nicety) to get the film funded. After the protestors sweltered in a pressure cooker for an hour, their cabin in the desert ends up feeling less like Ted Kacynzki’s shack and more like the Mickey Mouse clubhouse (with colourful lights included). The section of pipe they aim to destroy was selected to spill the least amount of oil, never mind blood. 

Often movies dealing with our current time provide easy answers to the audience instead of asking questions, and the increasingly rare films that let the audience think for themselves seem to be either reviled (Under the Silver Lake) or revered (Tár). To be fair, How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t provide the audience with an an answer as it doesn’t even ask a question. Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s phenomenal Night Moves, which questions whether political action is worth the sacrifice and toll it entails, there is no human cost or even much of a struggle to this self-labelled act of terrorism. The ending, intended in part to overcome leftist ‘doomerism’ according to writer-performer Ariela Barer in a post-screening Question & Answer session, goes up in smoke, somehow satisfying everyone except the audience.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline was screened at the 2023 Dublin International Film Festival on February 28.

Featured Image Credit