The First Great Action Movie About Climate Justice?

The First Great Action Movie About Climate Justice?

The First Great Action Movie About Climate Justice?

A conversation with Daniel Goldhaber about adapting Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline into a politically-minded thriller. 

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Few recent books on the climate movement have so flustered audiences like Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Since its publication in 2021, the left commentariat has spilled much ink weighing the potential benefits and costs of Malm’s call to sabotage fossil-fuel infrastructure because—to echo the IPCC’s bleak annual reports on climate change—we’re running out of time. But in other corners of opinion, a familiar blend of fascination and disdain emerged. “The problem with violence,” The New York Times noted in its initial review, “is that ultimately it’s impossible to control.” David Remnick of The New Yorker fretted that the property damage might “backfire and damage the movement.” Later, on her SiriusXM talk show, Megyn Kelly smirked at the book’s title and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

For decades, the popular image of the climate activist in the media has jounced somewhere between out-of-touch tree-hugger and deranged supervillain, either too docile to meaningfully challenge their opponents or too crazy to be trusted with power. But Daniel Goldhaber’s film adaptation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline does away with that paradigm. The film—written by Goldhaber and his friends Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol—boils down Malm’s book into a tightly wound thriller, in which eight lead characters who live hundreds of miles away from one another come together in heist-movie fashion to do exactly what the title states: destroy a major pipeline near Odessa, Tex.

While each character labors over the construction and placement of their homemade explosives, the film explores their motivations. Goldhaber, the son of climate scientists, toys with the climate-activist archetype, playing up the suspense in whether such a project could ever actually succeed. In other, more dismissive hands, Goldhaber’s white punks out of Portland could never have hoped to bridge the divide between themselves and a West Texas local, never mind the poor Black, brown, and Indigenous people whose neighborhoods have been more immediately affected by heat waves and cancer-causing pollutants. But Goldhaber’s film infuses these real tensions with an energizing sense of optimism. If Malm’s manifesto is the philosophical framework for why we should blow up a pipeline, Goldhaber’s film broaches the what if’s. What if a small team of people could utilize sabotage in such a way that their tactic becomes popular across the country? What if, despite each crew member’s varying needs and interests, their plan to topple fossil-fuel capital could actually work?

I spoke recently with Goldhaber about the challenges of making the film, the differences between cultural production and real climate activism, and state involvement in the film industry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Sam Russek

Sam Russek: It took just 19 months to go from the conception of the idea for this movie to its premiere in Toronto last year, right?

Daniel Goldhaber: Climate change is urgent. We’re on a timeline of years or months, not decades, to solve this problem. From an artistic standpoint, we felt telling the story as quickly as possible [would create] an energy that is present and palpable in the film. My editor loves to say if you put a bunch of young people handling extremely fragile explosive material in a movie, the tension is going to be there whether you want it to be or not.

SR: You’ve said elsewhere that this film shouldn’t be confused with activism, and that “sometimes one can confuse the making of a piece of media or the consumption of a piece of media with having actually done” something. I was wondering if you could expand on that here.

DG: My first jobs in film were working on climate-change documentaries—my first job was as an assistant editor on a movie called Chasing Ice. I think you see a lot of back-patting and self-congratulating people where it’s like, “Yes, you’ve raised awareness; yes, you ‘contributed to the culture,’ but that’s it—and you own five cars that you bought with the money you made making your climate-change documentary.” That’s not to say you’re not allowed to build a career, that you’re not allowed to consume if you engage in activism, but it’s about being frank and at least self-aware about what you’ve done and what you’ve contributed to.

For us, we just don’t want to ever think we’ve done more than contribute a piece to cultural production. If we organize a fundraiser around the film to directly support people who are at the front lines of a movement, that might be a form of activism, but the creation of the movie itself was not. I think one of the reasons why there is so much media that contributes to this feeling on both sides of the aisle is partially a result of the extraordinarily cloistered way in which media is produced, the fact that it exists in these tight-knit communities where people want to feel like they’re doing something about the problems of the world. But the only thing they know how to do is make media, and sometimes they tell themselves they’re doing more than they actually are out of a sense of guilt.

SR: How did you and the other writers think about transmuting Malm’s manifesto into a fiction thriller? What were some of the tensions you wanted to maintain in the film?

DG: Half the battle when you’re writing is figuring out what you’re trying to say. With this, we were kind of handed the argument. Once we knew what the identity of the movie was and what the purpose of the movie was, and knew we were still trying to push back against the book in certain respects, it was a more straightforward process, which allowed us to animate that argument within the structure [of the film]. It was really about figuring out who these people would be, where they would come from, and also: How do you actually blow up a pipeline? Because, of course, the book doesn’t tell you how.

It became more Ocean’s 11-y over the course of the first few weeks of development, but the first movie we hoped to structure ours like was A Man Escaped. You have this title that suggests this process-based action that is a thriller, whether you like it or not. I was in the room with Ariela reading the book that Jordan had recommended to me, and we’d all been looking for something to write together, and I had this image of a bunch of kids in the desert struggling with a bomb—it was kind of a lightning-in-the-bottle moment. The piece of development that came later was the flashback structure, the nature of the ensemble, a lot of that human stuff. Ariella was the one who put those pieces together. It’s still acknowledging, again, these complications, these drawbacks, these character foibles. But at the same time, it’s not falling into a kind of cynicism about the ability to act, and that’s because there have been so many successful social justice movements throughout history—we just have to actually acknowledge and do justice to their tactics.

SR: At the Toronto International Film Festival, you mentioned that a technical adviser credited as “Anonymous” was a “higher-up” working in counterterrorism. It was surprising to me that someone like that was involved in the making of this movie. Can you explain their role a bit more?

DG: I thoroughly misspoke—it was opening night—but I can tell you frankly, our bomb consultant was somebody connected to a friend of a friend who is a giant bomb nerd and who works in counterterrorism as a contractor for the US military. He’s not in the military; he’s a contractor for the military. He’s an expert in improvised explosives that may or may not be used by people considered to be domestic terrorists. I worked with him under the guise of needing a bomb expert, because we wanted to make sure the bomb-building was accurate. He walked us through how to make the bombs, because he doesn’t like that bombs are always inaccurately made in movies. The only part of the script that our bomb consultant read was the bomb-building section. Outside of that, he never read the script; he never knew what the movie was about in full.

He knew it was about a bunch of kids blowing up a pipeline, but I don’t think he dug that deep into that. We talked to him about the nature of the subject matter, and his feeling was that, in his words, “People are very angry these days, and that’s really important to talk about.” And I think he felt there was value in a movie that showed how easily bombs can be made. It’s something people think is more difficult and less accessible than it is.

From our standpoint, it was no different from having a consultation with the oil-pipeline expert we consulted with. I also thoroughly understand suspicions of US involvement in cinema production, because [the government] is involved in quite a bit of propagandistic cinema production, like Top Gun: Maverick. But in this film, nobody ever saw the script, nobody ever gave script notes, and there was actually no material involvement with any actual counterterrorism officials. We had full creative control over the film. At no point did we censor anything in the movie for any reason.

SR: Who else did you reach out to for research?

DG: I’m a bit hesitant to put any individual on blast. But the research process started with Andreas [Malm], initially connecting with people in his network and branching out from there. We started from the standpoint of “Hey, we’re thinking of making a movie that’s an interpretation of How to Blow Up a Pipeline—what do you think that movie should be?” One of the first questions we asked is, “What would you fear most for this film to be?”

SR: What were some of the fears?

DG: That the film may not acknowledge the consequences of an act like this appropriately, and that the film would give enemies of the climate movement ammunition against it. This doesn’t mean the movie will not fall victim to bad-faith criticism, but it was important that we felt we could stand by any criticism we got. But I think, more than fears, there were a lot of points of guidance: to avoid treating the Indigenous voices in the film as a monolith, to include various perspectives. The constant pressure and suspicion that informants and the FBI created in these communities was something we dug into. Ultimately, people really just encouraged us to do justice and pay homage to the very genuine sacrifices that activists make.

SR: I appreciate that Pipeline ends where it does—with all the ramifications yet to be fully felt, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusion and, in your words, “empathize with this act.” Can you explain that choice?

DG: It was the last thing that we locked in. We kept going back and forth on the ending, because we had originally conceptualized it in terms of trying to demonstrate the impact a little bit more. But I think something we found was that there was no amount of aftermath that was ever going to satisfy the audience—and us—because the problem is, there is no one-to-one relationship between blowing up a pipeline and where it goes from there, and I think it took us a while to really understand this. But that’s part of an act like this: You do it because you believe it’s justified, not because it’s going to immediately save the world. Contemporarily, we have a desire to feel a one-to-one relationship in our stories, especially because of the domination of Marvel in those kinds of stories in the cultural landscape, which is evidence of their propagandistic value and appeal. But ultimately, we recognize that this is a movie about people who do something because they believe it’s just, and they get away with it. They get away with it at great personal cost, and that’s the movie.

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