'Oklahoma City': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A potent doc that casts a scathing eye on homegrown American extremism.

This documentary about the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City seeks the origins of this terrorist act in the anti-government, white nationalist movement that's still going strong.

Timely, engrossing, provocative, if also frustrating at times, Oklahoma City will certainly be one of the most discussed documentaries premiering at Sundance this year. This comprehensive look at the terrorist bombing of 1995 and the anti-government rage that fueled it deserves the attention it will surely receive. Extremely well directed by experienced documentarian Barak Goodman, the film will have a brief theatrical release before playing on PBS.

The film begins strikingly, with a recording of a board meeting inside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on the morning of April 19, 1995, which is cut short by the sound of a deafening explosion. As the film goes on to show the horrific scene that confronted firefighters on that morning, it also speculates on the reasons behind the bombing. Goodman carefully explores the background to the attack, the confrontations at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas that sparked the anger that inspired bomber Timothy McVeigh. From that point on, the film intercuts effectively among these inciting incidents and the havoc in Oklahoma City.

Ruby Ridge began with the rise of a white nationalist, neo-Nazi movement that caught fire in the 1980s. Rural Idaho became the headquarters of the Aryan Nations and other fringe groups that wanted to see a return to a vision of America that never really existed except in the minds of these extremists. Randy Weaver, his family, and a few confederates were living in a remote outpost of Idaho when the FBI learned they were accumulating a large cache of weapons. The attack that took place in 1992 (during the administration of Republican President George H.W. Bush) began to rile the fanatics.

Waco was somewhat different, as the film points out. The Branch Davidians were a religious cult, and they did not seem to share the same racist ideology as the Aryan Nations. Footage of members of their compound show several black families who were part of the community. But David Koresh and his followers shared the anti-government extremism of the Idaho gangs, and they were also heavily armed, which led to the standoff and the eventual self-immolation of close to 100 people, including a number of children.

Timothy McVeigh was one of the people who came to Waco to cheer on the Branch Davidians during the long standoff before the final conflagration, and there is fascinating footage that shows him on the scene. McVeigh was clearly a more complex figure than some of the other far right fanatics with whom he socialized. He had served in the army during the first Gulf War but became skeptical of the rationale for that war and regretted killing Iraqi soldiers, whom he regarded as just as human as his American compatriots. Although McVeigh was inspired by the anti-government rhetoric of the far right, the film does not indicate whether or not he shared the racist views of many of those with whom he associated.

One would have liked a somewhat deeper perspective on McVeigh, but perhaps it would take a full-length biography to do him justice. (A couple of his biographers are interviewed on camera in the film.) Similarly, the film suggests that the government overreacted at both Ruby Ridge and Waco, but these earlier conflicts deserve books or films in their own right. It may be that Goodman has simply taken on too huge a subject to do complete justice to it in a 100-minute movie.

The strongest parts of the film crystallize the human tragedy that took place in Oklahoma City. Since there was a day care center in the Murrah Building, 19 children were among the 168 people killed by McVeigh. Some of the parents of those children are interviewed in the film, including a couple whose two children survived, but with devastating injuries.

There’s another cautionary note that this film strikes. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, some news reports blared that the attack had “Middle East terrorism written all over it.” At a time when anti-Muslim prejudice is again running rampant, the film performs a valuable service in reminding us of the dangers of white American extremism, which is at least as vicious today as it was in the 1990s.

Beyond its message, however, and despite some unfortunate omissions in the history it recounts, the film succeeds as one of the most gripping and suspenseful docs of recent years. The editing by Don Kleszy is superb. The film builds a terrible sense of foreboding as it sketches the background to the bombing and then builds to the inevitable catastrophe. Although McVeigh was executed years ago, the fallout from Oklahoma City remains just as toxic today as it was two decades ago.

Production:  American Experience Films, PBS

Director-screenwriter: Barak Goodman

Producers:  Barak Goodman, Emily Singer Chapman

Executive producer: Mark Samels

Director of photography: Stephen McCarthy

Editor:  Don Kleszy

Music:  David Cieri

No rating, 102 minutes