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New York Times
8 Apr 2023

NextImg:Will We Call Them Terrorists?

A group of young people sit around a dilapidated living room. They’re on couches, on chairs, on the floor. The lovers among them are nestled close. People are drinking from red Solo cups. Someone has a flask. A joint is circulating. There’s laughter and passionate debate and easy alternation between the two. With the sound turned off, the scene would be so familiar — just young adults, relaxing — that you would never guess the question they’re working through together: Are we terrorists? Do we feel like terrorists?

“Of course I feel like a [expletive] terrorist!” one young man says, laughing. “We’re blowing up a goddamn pipeline!”

No viewer will be surprised to hear this. It’s right there in the movie’s title: “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” But the man himself seems shocked, as if he can’t quite believe what he’s saying. He and the film’s other main characters are hiding in an abandoned house in West Texas. They plan to strap homemade explosives to an oil pipeline the next day, hoping to reveal the industry’s fragility, encourage more ecosabotage and ultimately make fossil-fuel extraction untenable. “They’re going to call us revolutionaries,” one young woman suggests, waving the joint for effect. “Game changers.” Not so, another counters. “They’re going to call us terrorists. Because we’re doing terrorism.”

The talk turns to history and the way tactics considered beyond the pale are often played down in retrospect. The Boston Tea Party — weren’t they terrorists, intentionally destroying key economic materials for political purposes? Martin Luther King Jr. was on an F.B.I. watch list; today he’s an American hero. Someone suggests that having the government call you a terrorist might mean you’re doing something right. Someone else suggests that when terrorism “works,” the forces of authority just lie and say change came entirely via “passive, nonviolent, kumbaya” actions. Someone argues that, hey, they’re not going to hurt anyone, to which someone else objects — sure they are; the plan is to create a spike in oil prices, which will have an immediate effect on the lives of poor people. “Revolution has collateral damage,” a handsome young man says with the timeless confidence of a handsome and slightly drunk young man with an audience.

The scene is saturated with uncertainty, and nothing anyone says can make that uncertainty go away. The would-be saboteurs don’t even know for sure that their bombs will go off, let alone what effect they will have if they do. They don’t know if they will be caught. Above all, they cannot know how others, now or in the future, will view their actions. Will they be remembered — if they’re remembered at all — as brave warriors justified by the righteousness of their aims? As ordinary villains, sowing destruction and chaos to flatter their own radical impulses? Or as well-intentioned fools whose actions only made it harder, not easier, to achieve the changes they desired?

The question is cranked up to 11 by the mass of explosives just yards away.

The question of what the future will make of us — what distant generations, looking back, will think of our choices — has probably been invoked for as long as humans have debated what to do next. But the climate issue has made this question inescapable. Decisions we are making right now are determining not just how much hotter and more polluted the world gets, but also how prepared future generations will be to live in the hotter, more polluted world we leave them. This line of thinking feels, at first, galvanizing: What will our descendants, our literal and metaphorical children, wish we had done to make their lives better?

The film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” directed by Daniel Goldhaber, was loosely adapted from a 2021 manifesto of the same name by the Swedish political theorist Andreas Malm. The book’s argument is simple: If the climate movement is serious about reducing fossil-fuel emissions at the necessary speed and scale, Malm contends, it will have to make room for strategies long dismissed as too extreme, including the illegal destruction of fossil-fuel infrastructure. Just a few years ago, this argument would only have appeared in organs of mainstream opinion so it could be condemned. Instead, the book received respectful coverage from outlets around the world. Now, surprisingly, it is a movie, one with prominent distribution and a cast featuring familiar faces from prestige TV.

Two of its young protagonists, we learn, met when one saw the other browsing through Malm’s book in a store. Their group sees itself as converting Malm’s argument into action, and the fact that the film treats this perspective with sympathy — respect, even — makes it a strange kind of cultural landmark. Until now, ecologically minded saboteurs have generally been presented onscreen either as villains or, at best, as lost souls, unserious radicals who, in their impatience and naïveté, go too far. Goldhaber’s film does contain several critiques of its young protagonists’ scheme, but it remains open to — and, in some moments, palpably excited by — the possibility that they are right and that their plan will work exactly as they hope.

But this is only a possibility. Thrillers work by planting questions and making us itch for answers. What makes “Pipeline” so interesting is the way it intertwines plot questions (will the explosives work?) with the uncertainty inherent in judging your actions by the standards of the future. Try as we might, we cannot always know the effects of our individual choices; we cannot know how they will relate to the actions of others or the currents of history; we cannot know how future generations will understand their world or through what lenses they will look back on ours. This uncertainty is the always-present shadow of every decision we make. It would be one thing to see a group of young adults drinking and debating Malm’s arguments in a dormitory; it is another to see them do it with bombs in a van outside. Like all of us, they are wondering what history will make of them, but the question is cranked up to 11 by the mass of explosives just yards away.

The movie itself tries something similar; it seems to be going out of its way to feel as though it is already about a historical event. Structurally, it uses flashbacks to give each character a back story that sketches his or her motivations. Stylistically, Goldhaber makes frequent nods to the paranoid political thrillers of the 1970s. The effect is both electrifying and disorienting: This insistently contemporary story ends up feeling like something from the past, seen from the future, underlining the way the uncertainties faced by the saboteurs are the same ones faced by the film itself. What are the chances that, years from now, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” might be seen as something like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a catalyst for historical change? What are the chances that its legacy might be widespread condemnation and draconian crackdowns on “terrorist” climate protests? What are the chances that it receives little notice at all and looks like just another example of our era talking about climate change but not halting it?

“Pipeline” does not have those answers. By the final frame, we do know what has become of the saboteurs’ plan. In a traditional thriller, the resolution of the plot would be a cathartic release from uncertainty, but here we’re plunged back into all the questions the movie knows can’t be resolved. We cannot see the future until it arrives; it can go too many ways. This fact of life can be frightening. It’s nice to be reminded that it can also underline the moral stakes of our decisions in a way that gives them heft and energy.

Source photographs: Neon; iStock/Getty Images