Logan (Lukas Gage) meets Shawn (Marcus Scribner) holding a red-covered book within a section of a bookstore both men are trolling for like-minded individuals. Our assumption is that the color means he’s leafing through Andreas Malm’s nonfiction How to Blow Up a Pipeline, in which the author argues for sabotage as a legitimate form of climate activism while also criticizing the pacifism and fatalism that has otherwise dominated the conversation instead. It makes sense, then, why Logan smirks before relaying how it “doesn’t actually explain how to build a bomb.” It doesn’t have to when there are numerous resources that already do—the stuff that will probably land you on an FBI watchlist. That’s not the point. The point is that those bombs should be built.
Daniel Goldhaber’s decision to adapt Malm’s work into a film may seem odd; a pure one-to-one transition would be more TED Talk than narrative feature. So he and co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol use it as a springboard instead. They put Malm’s philosophies and assertions into characters who are willing to act on them despite the consequences. People who grew up near an oil refinery and are now enduring the impact with familial deaths by cancer directly linked to that proximity. People thrown off land they owned for generations so the government can build new lines and poison another innocent generation. Native-American activists. College-educated revolutionaries. And, of course, 21st-century punk-ified hippies looking to stick it to “the man.” Together they can change the world.
This isn’t therefore an “if” scenario. This is happening. Alibis are being fostered, goodbyes are being given, and the members of this “terrorist” collective are climbing into their cars to converge at an undisclosed location in the Texan desert. Some know each other; some don’t. Some are in it for the thrill; some for the message. Some are too serious to even look beyond the task at-hand. So they work: mixing chemicals in metal barrels, wiring detonation caps, digging holes, preparing target sites. They’re organized, capable, and meticulous, even if they are all amateurs (as we’ll discover in a welcome reprieve from the suspense to watch Forrest Goodluck’s Michael livestream his self-education with homemade explosives). Even if they were professionals, though, there’s no accounting for human error.
The “heist” begins. They must make the bombs without killing themselves. Secure the bombs without getting caught. And take the precautions necessary to destroy the oil industry’s infrastructure without harming any lives—that means not creating an oil spill or polluting the atmosphere more than it already is. Rather than prove a half-cocked plan wrought from anger, this attack has been researched and double-checked to the smallest detail, Ocean’s Eleven-style, so the act itself does more than throw a wrench in Big Oil’s bottom-line. If they don’t want to be labeled as no better than their enemies, they cannot compromise or cut corners. And if they succeed at doing this cleanly, maybe others will recognize that it’s possible to violently disrupt without becoming part of the problem.
With a lean script wound tighter than Michael when he tries slapping himself steady so shaky hands don’t end their mission before it begins, we find ourselves thrown into the action with little room to breathe. It’s an urgency Goldhaber admits matched their own during the evolution from concept to production in just seven months. They were able to do it by consulting a slew of experts who helped facilitate authenticity, character backgrounds, and processes. A counterterrorism expert mapped out what type of bombs could do the job and how regular citizens might feasibly manufacture them. Pipeline engineers highlighted the precise factors that would need to be in place to erase any potential for additional environmental harm. And real activists lent firsthand accounts about actually following through.
The rest was up to the cast, their ability to embody the emotions necessary to believe their characters would risk everything to get it done. Goldhaber and company assist them in that pursuit by expertly devising the briefest of “origin” stories for each—moments of radicalization and / or recruitment. The order in which they’re revealed is measured to perfection, too, so that those motivations ultimately become the propulsive force of the drama—from frustrations (Barer’s Xochitl and Shawn tiring of the reality that their non-violent activism has no chance of causing a dent in the crisis before billions have already died) to coercions (there’s a reason Logan and Kristine Froseth’s Rowan are very obviously different from the rest). Also friendship, love, and a hope for the future.
Because it takes all kinds. Those with a future (Jake Weary’s Dwayne is desperate to ensure his newborn baby has a world to grow-up in) and those without (Sasha Lane’s Theo is given a terminal diagnosis and thus all the fuel she needs to seek revenge on the cause of her impending death). Those who have everything (Logan’s criminality is despite a wealthy upbringing), those with nothing (Michael is sick of watching the world that was stolen from his ancestors being pillaged in front of his eyes), and those who have no choice but to lose everything either way (Jayme Lawson’s Alisha can’t save Theo—the two are a couple—but she can be by her side as she achieves this dying wish). Different backgrounds, a single goal.
Thus we can’t help emphasize with their plight. We see their desperation and want them to succeed. Yet How to Blow Up a Pipeline is neither a tragic cautionary tale nor gung-ho call-to-arms glorification. It’s merely a depiction of impact. Are these young men and women heroic figures? Maybe. As put onscreen they’re simply Americans reckoning with their place on a rapidly dying planet marred by a growing sense of apathy where it concerns believing change is possible. That’s powerful. So they will make mistakes. There will be injuries, close-calls, and maybe even betrayals. Reality is messy, humans are complicated. The only certainty is that victory means more than their lives. They don’t want to die—they’re saving the world, after all—but they’re willing.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.