Goldhaber: How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023)

On the face of it, Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline might seem like an impossible project. It’s an adaptation of Andreas Malm’s non-fiction book of the same name, which argues for direct sabotage of carbon emissions rather than peaceful activism or climate fatalism. Malm advocates action as the only answer to the climate crisis, begging the question of whether a film adaptation might simply fall into another one of the peaceful or passive protests that he sees as impotent. In response, Goldhaber crafts a film that sits at the cusp between fiction and non-fiction, between commentary and direct action, and between documentary and science fiction, all of which serves to evoke the planetary futurity that is still possible within our present. It’s the next logical step beyond such environmental activist films as Erin Brockovich and Night Moves, partly because it is less interested in constituting itself as a closed filmic ecosystem, or as a discrete exercise in aesthetic style. Instead, How to Blow Up a Pipeline continually bleeds into the audience’s world, and is programmatically incomplete without the action that it intends to engender from anybody who experiences it.

Of course, there is a part of How to Blow Up a Pipeline that is still a film, and this part uses a loosely fictional structure as a vehicle for Malm’s central point – namely, that the politics of divestment must be replaced by a politics of sabotage in order to fight against imminent climate genocide. In Goldhaber’s script, co-written with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, this involves a group of activists who target a critical oil pipeline in West Texas, in order to make oil “unviable in the marketplace.” They plan to hit the pipeline in three elevated spots to ensure that the oil seeps back into the pipe, rather than contaminating the surrounding landscape. West Texas occupies a strange nexus between the hyper-global and the hyper-local, from the planned construction of Paulville, Ron Paul’s libertarian-utopian community, to the establishment of Elon Musk’s first space tourism launching-pad, to the migratory movements around the El Paso borderplex. While these global energies aren’t directly visible in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, you feel them in the sheer emptiness and vacancy of the land, which brims with a sentience that the activist collective can only glimpse by looking at it awry.

All of the members of this collective are also touched, in some way, by the climate crisis. One of them has contracted a rare form of leukemia, caused by growing up in close proximity to an oil refinery. Another’s mother dies during a freak heatwave. Another develops an interest in explosives after his upbringing on a remote Indian Reservation seems to leave him with no option but to work for the oil company that is plundering his land. Yet another is forced to leave his West Texas property under the aegis of eminent domain to make way for the pipeline. Likewise, no member of the collective has a stable home. We see a dim apartment in Long Beach, the otherworldly industry of the Indian Reservation, a makeshift home in Texas, and various sites along the road, but there is no homeliness here, much as there is no bright or warm light, with the exception of the explosions along the pipeline. The characters all remark on the surprising coldness of West Texas, harbinger of a planetary future in which the very idea of homeliness, of human habitability, will cease to be taken for granted. Alongside these characters, the only vestiges of law and order (let alone government) that we see are a drunken Texas cop, and an FBI agent fully prepared to engage in systematic brutality.

It’s not really worth elaborating upon the characters more than that, however, since How To Build a Pipeline is somewhat exhausted with the very idea of story and character. Early in the film, we meet a documentarian who advocates divestment, rather than sabotage, and who is obsessed with “putting a human face on the situation.” One of the filmmaker’s first subjects is the man whose property has been seized to make way for the pipeline, who asks him whether he can contribute any financial, material or practical asset to the cause. Of course, this filmmaker can’t, although it turns out that the boom operator has only joined the crew to network with people looking for more radical action. Thus, the germ of the sabotage collective is born – despite, rather than due to, the “human face” fetishised by the filmmaker.

Likewise, Goldhaber diverges radically from this film-within-the-film, hewing as close to action as possible. This is a film that wants to will radical activism into existence, and to be a pivotal part of it – to end the endless climate discourse with the bluntness of one of the activists, who decides that “I’m not thinking about it, I’m doing it.” To that end, Goldhaber doesn’t spend too much time on each character’s backstory or flashbacks. While these start off as somewhat discrete, they soon blend into each other, and are often truncated abruptly, subordinated to the film’s propulsive drive towards action. It is as if Goldhaber is sabotaging the very lexicon of the film as an exemplar for the kind of change he wants to see in the world, reminding prospective activists that the first thing they need to dismantle are the sentimental narratives (as Joan Didion put it) that subsume action into bland and empty “contemplation.”

As a result, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is driven by affect, atmosphere and rhythm more than the conventional narratological and characterological ingredients of Hollywood cinema. Much of this affect revolves around the alien manifestations of the oil company across the West Texas landscape – primarily in the form of the pipeline, but also in the alterior agency of the drone that monitors its length. In a weird way, these scenes reminded me of Ron Underwood’s 1990 film Tremors, which revolves around an extraterrestrial presence that emerges beneath the desert of the American Southwest. In the highly formalist exercise of Tremors, the desert surface becomes a figure for, and coterminous with, the operation of genre in American cinema, making it both bounded and endlessly malleable. So it is with the desert in How to Blow Up a Pipeline, except the genre in question here isn’t one of cinema but of futurity. As the climate activists parse this surface, they both elasticise, and come to terms with the limitations of, the way that the future is framed in current climate discourse.

Conducting the sabotage thus becomes a way of imagining a different kind of future within the constrictions of the present, and it is here that How to Blow Up a Pipeline comes full circle with the genre formalism of Tremors. For Goldhaber’s vision is driven above all by a formal identification with the heist film, which it evacuates of everything except its starkest coordinates, jettisoning character, narrative detail, and even procedural ingenuity to reduce the genre to its core project; namely, to extract a future virtual space from a present physical space. Heist films traffic in the future as an emergent entity, contained in, but not contained by, the crude materials that constitute the present. Hence the dissonance, in How to Build Up a Pipeline, between the backbreaking labour that goes into setting up the explosions (digging holes, rolling drums, preparing ingredients) and the ethereal synth score that emerges epiphenomenally from it. This score never quite accompanies, or illustrates, or even propels us through the physical work of the sabotage, but instead floats in a slightly divergent sphere, like an emissary from an alternative future that can only exist in the process of envisaging it. 

These tendencies climax in the extraordinary credit sequence of the film, which in many ways is what makes the film. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a pure distillation and formalist embodiment of the centripetal futurity that makes heist films so uniquely emergent. As we cut between each actor’s name in the credits, and a glimpse of their character’s actions after the heist, the film straddles the very cusp of fiction and non-fiction, suspending us between the characters who performed the sabotage and the actors who are equally capable of conducting the same acts in the real world. Each actor-character is suspended in an ambivalent posture or a furtive gesture, inhabiting the very nexus between present and future, the precise moment in the present when futurity remains open, and it is in its ability to embody that moment that Goldhaber’s film retains the urgency of a non-fiction manifesto.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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