How to Blow Up a Movie

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” (2022) falls far short of its explosive title, writes Miles Garcia ’25, wasting the potential to stoke a cinematic fire under the climate fight.

How to Blow Up a Movie
The film is based on the nonfiction book of the same name and follows young people pursuing radical environmentalism. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Films are art, right? Films aren’t essays, or theses, or speeches, or homework assignments. They’re art. Yet in the case of Daniel Goldhaber’s new film, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” that rule seems mysteriously ignored. It has all the technical aspects down — it sure looks like a film, it sounds like a film, — but something’s off.

This is art that takes shortcuts. This is art that shows characters without personalities. This is a film that edits sequences together, yet has little of a story. In fact, it’s barely art at all — art imitates life, but this is an example of a film imitating art.

The filmmaker’s intentions are simple: to tell a story about how the eight main characters, each of whom have been deeply affected by climate change, work together to blow up a pipeline. That storyline is solid enough. And the message: “Climate change has affected many people and will continue to. We have to do something about it. Something drastic.” But these sentences are too simple to justify the film’s 104-minute runtime, and the lack of intrigue beyond the message.

Xochitl’s mom just died during a heat wave. Shawn is her friend from school. They’re helping to make a documentary about the horrors of climate change across America, but also know that their efforts aren’t enough. They need to do something big. They gather a team — including but not limited to Dwayne, a Texas resident; Theo, another friend of Xochitl’s; and Rowan and Logan, a couple who are on the run from the police. Everyone except Dwayne is in their early twenties. The youth is trying to save their world.

I have no problem with the concept: basically, these eight characters find a remote town in Texas containing an abundance of oil pipelines that they plan to, hence the name, blow up. Different plot points bring them all together to a place where they can not only accomplish an important goal, but bond further with each other in the process. It sounds like the beginning of a great adventure, and on some level it is thrilling. For example, in one scene we follow Michael, a Native American boy from the Midwest, as he carefully constructs the bomb and almost fails at least once. The shots are slow and steady, mimicking what it really would be like to be in his situation. Moments like this are where the film shines, if only briefly. We get to know them through their actions instead of through dialogue. The silent actions connote a strong bond, a mission to do something that needs to be done without the need for chatter.

The problems begin once the film cuts to unnecessary flashbacks, which take the form of short films about each character’s backstory. There is the romance between Theo and her girlfriend Alisha, the fact that Dwayne has a wife and a child (with no other stakes), and Xochitl telling Alisha why they have to carry out this deed (in a chapter mysteriously titled “Alisha” that has nothing to do with Alisha’s character). Not once do these flashbacks have more than a minimal bearing on what we’re currently watching. Instead, they act as distractions from the drama, from the action — distractions, mind you, that only exist to perpetuate the film’s bad habit of imitating things taken from other movies — “other movies have flashbacks, right? So why can’t we?” But the decision doesn’t seem to have any logic beyond that. “I’m sure that if we cut to random stories of these characters, the audience will get a better picture of who they are,” says the director, I imagine, in pre-production. But the stories lead us nowhere, only giving us caricatures of the people we see before us, limiting their personalities to the words they say rather than, as was previously established, the words they don’t say.

And, frankly, the words they do say are doubly reductive. One thought the writers probably had to themselves: “These characters are in their twenties; let’s have them say the f-word as much as possible.” Another example: One of the only scenes, perhaps the only scene, where we witness all the characters bonding — after a long hard day of work preparing the bomb, scouting locations, normal pipeline-destroying things. — they talk about whether or not what they’re doing is terrorism, and what that word truly means. “Jesus was a terrorist!” says someone. But what does this conversation do other than extend the blatant themes attached like a receipt onto the film’s streaming blurb?

The director thinks that his movie is as heroic as its characters. He thinks that it has a real mind, a real body, real blood pumping through its veins, all of which allow it to be a piece of art. Some movies can do this, but it seems that Goldhaber has overestimated his dramatic sensibilities and capabilities. The characters often discuss their belief that idle talk about fighting climate change isn’t enough — someone must take action. Yet, what is this very film doing to combat climate change? Idly talking about climate change. Sure, Goldhaber shows us the possibility of what taking action would look like, but, no matter what he thinks, his film in itself is not an act of revenge.

There are other things, like an unfortunate deus ex machina that would take double the word count of this article to fully address. But most of all, it’s disappointing to see something made from such an important idea flop this badly. It makes the grade for a standard indie movie that you can recommend to your friends as they say, “Oh, yeah, I might’ve heard of that.” But when you sift through all the hot air it blows at you, all you get is smoke and mirrors. Art with the illusion of purpose — maybe the illusion of existence.