I considered putting up a regular ol’ review of the newly released indie thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline but beloved Soluter The Narrator pretty well summed everything up in an open thread report earlier this week. I did enjoy the some aspects more than her but, as reported, this operates on the level of a de-glamorized Ocean‘s movie that intercuts the backstories of the central characters with their progress on a plan to destroy two sections of an oil pipeline in western Texas. The characters are a curated collection of present-day victims of social ills without much else going on, and the movie’s appeal rests in stringing out that age-old question of whether this motley crew will pull off the job without getting caught.
Though satisfactory in the thriller department (in my opinion), the heist doesn’t ignite the potential energy in the project’s incendiary title, taken from the non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm. It’s an adaptation-in-spirit, like the relationship between the book Fast Food Nation and its movie. But applying that title to fiction is a less loaded choice; it isn’t called Instructions for Poisoning Hamburger. How to Blow Up a Pipeline could easily have used a different title – suggestion: A Different Kind of Oil Boom, from the subheading of Ben Kenigsberg’s review – but the filmmakers choses to siphon some fuel from the implication that we might be buying a ticket for an instructional video on detonation.
Alas, like Malm’s book, the movie does not contain literal instructions for blowing up pipelines. I don’t know what I wanted. Maybe a little overview of the ecoterrorism process from an animated character à la Jurassic Park (Mr. TNT?) I wouldn’t expect – or condone – anything this explicit, but I did hope for something more threatening. Shouldn’t a film calling itself How to Blow Up a Pipeline feel at least a little dangerous?
But I also wondered would I even have the chance to see such a movie? Much like that oil I try to limit but can’t stop buying and burning, most of my movies get to me via their own pipeline. In this case, How to Blow Up a Pipeline premiered at the Toronto Film Festival where it was purchased by Neon and subsequently distributed to theaters. I saw it at an AMC, a node in the largest movie theater chain in the world. Surely if the movie had proposed something truly disruptive somebody along the line would have turned a valve and stopped the flow. There are few examples of outright censorship of a movie in this country, but movies are constructed all the time to elide tricky content (sex, overt politics) lest they fail to reach the largest potential audience and recoup costs for everybody down the line. With this size of apparatus, the movies wouldn’t be the place to push for radical social change, not while the Internet exists.
The idea that movies are the pipeline and not the bomb has needled me since watching last year’s Emily the Criminal in which Emily the Criminal resorts to larceny in the face of a society that demands she participate in the economy without giving her any assistance to meet this demand due to a criminal record. It’s a similar plight to the main character in 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, a movie whose reception – despite concerns over censorship and violence – resulted in reforms to the American justice system. Emily, of course, made absolutely no measurable dent in social reform causes. And it’s difficult to think of the last movie that did. The Day After? And that movie played on broadcast television.
Even at the high points of their social significance movies aren’t particularly known for inspiring immediate change, even violent change to the audience’s immediate surroundings, whatever people may have feared from viewers of Do the Right Thing or Joker. Riots aren’t their thing. But movies can deliver and amplify social attitudes that get slipped into the stream. Project Mayhem hasn’t been replicated, but Fight Club articulated millennium angst at the economic system. Black Panther didn’t advocate for policies for racial equality, was indeed part of a middlebrow money machine, but it added to the lexicon for Black empowerment.
And maybe I’m underestimating the impact of the movie’s mere existence. The FBI and several other federal and state agencies issued warnings that the film could inspire irl attacks on energy infrastructure. The warnings seem to be busywork from the desks of the nation’s finest worrywarts rather than a sign of serious concern among the powers that be. But still, the idea’s in the water, and that water’s on tap on my local AMC. Maybe How to Blow Up a Pipeline‘s strategy of making a conventional thriller and leaving the title’s implications to the imagination is a smart one. If nothing else I can Google the title without wondering if it puts me on a watchlist.