[This review was originally published at Give Me Some Light on April 10, 2023, while this film was still in theaters.]

I recently showed a class full of undergraduates the Coen Brothers’ 1988 comedy Raising Arizona. You probably know the film, and perhaps you remember this moment:

Furniture salesman Nathan Arizona (Trey Wilson) has offered a cash reward for the rescue of his kidnapped infant son Nathan Junior, and an opportunistic bounty hunter has blown like a tumbleweed into his office. This massive, muscle-bound, tattooed motorcyclist is Leonard Smalls — a.k.a. “The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse.” And Smalls isn’t here to take the offer: He’s here to bargain.



A minion of The Market: The Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona.

Irked, Arizona replies that Smalls should take his deal or get out. But Smalls isn’t finished. He says he’s only asking for a “fair price” — one that “the market will bear.” He reveals that he is, himself, a survivor of a black market for babies, and then adds, “There are people — and, mind you, I know ’em — that’ll pay a lot more than $25,000 for a healthy baby. … I’ll get the boy regardless. And if you don’t pay, the market will.”

Smalls has come right out and said what so many other businesses conceal behind deceptive rhetoric: He would find a stolen baby and, instead of returning him to his grieving parents, he would sell the baby on the black market himself. And make a fortune. And why not, in a country that justifies so much harmful activity in the name of “the pursuit of [personal] happiness”?

Students, to their credit, were repulsed by this heartless, dollar-driven monster. Surely we can all agree that this is, as Nathan Arizona himself puts it, “an evil man.” He is showing us the dark side of capitalism, the consequences that can come from prioritizing profit above all else. “It’s just business,” some might say. But at what cost?

So here’s a question:

If you think conscience demands that we stop human traffickers, how far are you willing to go to stop them? If weapons prove necessary for intervention and the rescue of vulnerable innocents from fortune-hungry opportunists, will you support that violence as justified?

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the young idealists who join forces in the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

The film, directed by Daniel Goldhaber, is based on a non-fiction book of the same title by climate change activist Andreas Malm. The book is a manifesto, really, praised by The Los Angeles Review of Books as “[o]ne of the most important things written about the climate crisis” and a “profoundly necessary book.” The film takes Malm’s propositions and imagines a narrative about what a real-world rebellion against heartless capitalism might look like.

The team of would-be Avengers who plot a rebellion in How to Blow Up a Pipeline don’t inspire much confidence. Young Xochi (Ariela Barer) might come closest to qualifying as the Brains of this outfit. She’s already posting mission statements on the windows of luxury cars and slashing their tires. She’s angry. When she buried her mother, who died in a heat wave, Xochi could look back over her shoulder and see evidence of the cause: plumes of smoke rising from a factory. But the Brawn is certainly Dwayne (Jake Weary), who is losing all patience with oil companies as they force their way onto his family property to chart the course of a pipeline.

Xochi (Ariela Barer) touches the target. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

But a plan like this has a lot of moving pieces, and so they need a lot of help. Xochi brings her college friends Shawn (Marcus Scriber) and Theo (Sasha Lane) on board. (If you’d told me that this takes place in the AHCU — the American Honey Cinematic Universe — and Sasha Lane is still playing the same character from that Andrea Arnold film, I might have believed you.) Shawn shares Xochi’s strong convictions, but for Theo it’s even more personal: she’s angry about the chemical causes of the cancer that is killing her. (In a world designed to favor big business over human decency, how’s a young woman like Theo to afford healthcare?) And then there’s Alisha (Jayme Lawson), who signs on reluctantly for Theo’s sake, mostly out of loving loyalty for her dying girlfriend.

Then there are Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) — lovers who look likely to miss their cues in carrying out the plan, probably because they’re too horny or too stoned. If you’re placing bets early on what’s likely to go wrong, you’ll probably pick on them.

Volatile tempers: The uneasy protestors roll a barrel of explosives. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

But who can blame this anxious crew for doing their best to make a difference while the rest of the world amuses itself to death? They want a future — a future for themselves and for all who come after them. They believe that the future of Planet Earth has been taken hostage, that it’s being sold to the highest bidder. They see oil companies accelerating even though the oil business is destroying the planet’s climate and propelling Planet Earth headlong into a crisis that humankind cannot survive.

Just as you and I might decide that force is necessary to rescue stolen babies from armed human traffickers, so they have decided that it’s time to blow stuff up to try and save the planet those babies depend on.

They see clearly that it would be mad to do nothing. And, as my students saw it in Leonard Smalls, they see not merely ignorance at work but a sort of demonic villainy. Isn’t violence against a mad murderer an act of self defense? Isn’t their desire to strike at these companies, to hit them where it hurts, reasonable?

If no amount of negotiation is making any difference, and if the oil companies have strapped a ticking time bomb to the planet, what harm is there is strapping a ticking time bomb to their oil pipelines? Why not try to blow up their unethical operations before they blow up an inhabitable earth?

Ah, but this band of heroes are acting in violation of laws — laws set up to protect businesses and business owners at the expense of, well, everyone else. Thus, as they conspire to try to save humankind, they are sure to be branded “terrorists.”

“If the American empire is calling us terrorists,” says Michael, “then we’re doing something right.”

Forrest Goodluck as Michael. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

Michael, perhaps the most essential member of the team, is a young Native American who feels the weight of the injustices suffered by his people. He’s been investing his rage in desperate, devil-may-care activism: He studies and makes videos about the art of low-budget bomb-making. And if that isn’t enough to get his name on FBI watch lists, he also posts videos of his own violent confrontations with workers on North Dakota oil rigs. Played with simmering fury by Forrest Goodluck, Michael is the character who occasionally makes me feel that I’m watching a documentary instead of a thriller, even though his fierce eyes and his storm-tossed hair make him look like a mythic hero. He hurtles forward headlong, impatient, so that we believe he will try to pull off this mission all by himself if he doubts, even for a moment, the dedication of his co-conspirators. (Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com aptly compares Goodluck’s screen presence to that of Michael Shannon, “an actor who can communicate that a character’s mind is racing in a dozen directions even when he’s handling whatever’s right in front of him.”)

Theo (Sasha Lane) wants to strike back at the source of the cancer that is killing her. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

These characters, their plight, and their plan are all more than enough to make How to Blow Up a Pipeline an exciting ordeal of white-knuckle suspense and intellectual challenges. We’re invested. We want to see them succeed in shaking up the systems that have set humanity on a trajectory toward self-inflicted extinction. But do we want them to do so with violence, and with violence that is likely to get one or more of them killed? I rarely feel as conflicted watching heroes fight injustice as I feel watching this rebellion against the empire. But that’s because most movies make rebellions look too easy, too simplistic, too clean. The Good Guys of Star Wars who won my admiration in childhood now seem dangerously and deceptively simplistic, and so my generation’s storytellers, expanding on the Star Wars legacy, feel compelled to address more complicated ethical questions in necessarily messier sequels like Rogue One and The Last Jedi and in tangential series like Andor.

Law enforcement looks more like the evil empire as our heroes reach the finish line. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

Unfortunately, How to Blow Up a Pipeline ends up feeling like it might not be grownup enough for its subject matter. I’m not talking about how it engages us with difficult questions; I’m talking about the artistry of its storytelling. It’s so difficult to pull off a movie like this without succumbing to the temptation to preach. The screenwriters — director Jordan Sjol and actress Ariela Barer — invest so much inspiration and energy into revealing the characters’ backstories and their suspenseful collaboration in setting up the explosives that the lack of forethought about what comes next becomes, in the final moments, painfully evident. What runs brilliantly for 90 minutes as an effective and thought-provoking adrenaline rush (as well as an X-ray and diagnosis of the rising anxiety prevalent in almost all of those 20-something and younger) stumbles at the finish line.

I find a similar sentiment in the Letterboxd post from Josh Larsen of Filmspotting: “How to Blow Up a Pipeline eventually sets aside the ethical debates its characters occasionally gesture toward to become its own political act, which feels somewhat at odds with the suspense trappings.”

Similarly, Michael Asmus at Letterboxd writes that

[A] call to arms feels lacking without an adjoined call to hope. Instead of letting the events play out and leave us to walk away weighing the costs, it confirms it’s actions as good, and wants us to agree. There’s some consequence, but no imagination for what’s next. I hesitate to call it propaganda by any stretch, as there’s artful moments which are surprising and affecting. But instead I left a bit let down….

Letterboxd’s own Mitchell Beaupre also acknowledges the film’s last-minute stumble: “There’s something anticlimactic about how the film concludes. Not that I’d want anything different to happen necessarily, but maybe certain reveals and tying up of all the threads was a little too abrupt and/or a little too clean.”

Indeed. After an hour and 40 minutes of excitement, it’s unfortunate that the film runs two misguided minutes further.

But I agree with all that Beaupre admires about it, including its spiritual connection to another recent film about this present darkness:

Not sure I’ve seen a film dig so effectively into the question of what we can do to try and make some kind of difference when at this point all hope seems so truly lost. First Reformed is the only one that really comes to mind and they’d pair well in that way, but while Schrader’s film takes the existential approach, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is dirty, on the ground, focusing on people who are really trying to do something, anything with what little time we have left to actualize change.

So, while I highly recommend this film as one of 2023’s most impressive, I also think it’s imperative that we follow it with rigorous conversations, exercising conviction and conscience. Is a violent rebellion against a wicked empire the only way forward? Is a refusal to blow up pipelines a sign that we have given up, and that we’re willing to enable the enemy?

A barrel full of anger and hope. [Image from the NEON trailer.]

I turn to J.R.R. Tolkien, who survived what was arguably World War One’s most horrific battle. He believed in the sovereignty of God as I do. And in The Lord of the Rings he does not condemn armies that march out in force against a world-destroying warlord. Indeed — he makes the focus of the mission an act of violence against the enemy’s most destructive tool: He has heroes risk their lives to destroy the Ring of Power. But Tolkien also acknowledges that no one really wins at war. His narrative is about how his most innocent and virtuous hero is corrupted by evil on the very path to blow it all up. This is why the saga seems haunted, burdened, fashioned as much to be a lament over the terrible choices available to us in resisting the Enemy. He wrote in a letter in 1956: “… [O]ne must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’ ….”

But then he added another clause — one in which abides all of his hopes for salvation: “… and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.”

Indeed, I must find my ultimate hope and comfort in the grand design of grace. We may destroy the world God gave us. And we may do more harm than good in striving to rid the world of its cancers and trying to strengthen the things that remain. But even if Planet Earth becomes uninhabitable, there is a more expansive story — one in which even death is defeated. We may have to turn to fantasy stories and fairy tales to get a taste of it, since we cannot realize it here and now. But there are reasons such stories carry the ring of truth. As evil empires devour themselves in their madness, there is an as-yet-to-be-revealed resurrection on the way, one we cannot yet imagine because its only precedent is what we’re celebrating here, today, as I write this on an Easter Sunday.

So, while I stop short of a whole-hearted, clear-conscience endorsement of this movie’s conspiracy itself, I cannot condemn the rebellion — or these beautiful rebels. The destruction they unleash is respectful of human life, not murderous. Their cause is just, their arguments compelling, their methods meaningful. In their heartbreak and desperation, I hear the poetry of David Bowie:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…