A deeply engaging examination of America’s deadliest domestic terrorist act.
Barak Goodman’s “Oklahoma City” is a refreshingly astute–albeit terrifying–look into the Oklahoma City bombing. On April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb that destroyed and razed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The bomb caused nearly 600 million dollars in damages and killed 168 people, 19 of whom were babies and children. While many have used documentary to investigated the attack before, few have done so like Barak Goodman. The documentarian carefully flushes out some of the more nuanced intricacies of this horrific story, creating a unique film that is as relevant today as it would have been twenty years.
Using a Direct Cinema approach, the PBS documentary details the the brutality of the acts with a focalized lens that stirs powerful emotions and provides new perspectives. The director seldom making his presence known, allowing the viewer to soak in the information as it comes. Therefore there is no single political or sociocultural alignment. The viewer is left to their own devices. What emerges is a narrative that is as tragic as it is emotionally aggravating.
But perhaps what is most spellbinding about Goodman’s most recent effort is his attention to connecting the dots between motive and action. In what is a truly convoluted narrative, Goodman retains his focus throughout. The director successfully reels in his viewers into the world of Timothy McVeigh, detailing how a shy, bullied and lanky young man from upstate New York could commit such an abhorrent act of terror. It was this fact that caused especial alarm. The terrorist strike was not perpetrated by a foreign entity–as it was originally thought to be–but rather a homegrown white supremacist.
The documentarian certainly knows his craft too, having previously been nominated for an Academy and winning two Emmys. His stellar “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” was bestowed with an Oscar nomination in 2000 and an Emmy win while his episode My Lai in the “An American Experience” series won him his second Emmy in 2010. Coupled with Don Kleszy’s excellent editing work, Goodman does an outstanding job of showcasing the domino effect that led to the events at Oklahoma City. Splicing together interviews of sheriffs, survivors, former extremists, journalists, writers and more, Goodman paints a mesmerizingly harrowing tale of disillusionment, anti-government sentiment and rage.
It is precisely the non-linear editing techniques of today’s digital age that has made the film such a triumph. The ability to move around in time seamlessly and sift through thousands of hours of footage at the flick of a button is one of the primary reasons that Goodman and Kleszy were able to concoct such a compelling documentary. The haunting surveillance footage, recorded commentary and barrage of interviews contributes to the film’s unsettling aura. Combined with David Cieri’s stirring score, “Oklahoma City” takes its time to unfold the disturbing psychological descend of McVeigh.
“Oklahoma City’s” careful exploration of the events that led up to the bombing provides the audience with a view into the mind of a complex individual. From the incidents at Ruby Ridge and Waco to McVeigh’s disenchantment with America’s foreign and domestic policies, McVeigh was part of a growing far-right sentiment that wanted action. Inspired by the radical 1978 novel The Turner Diaries, McVeigh slowly begins to mimic the events of the book which culminates in a truck bombing of the FBI building in Washington D.C. The young McVeigh was steadfast in his approach, execution and motivation, continuously mentioning the need for a “high body count” to grab the government’s attention.
But what makes McVeigh such an enigma is his strange backward sense of empathy. The Gulf War veteran seemed to not share the same racist views of those he associated with at gun shows and meetings. McVeigh frequently lamented the United States’ presence in world conflicts, particularly in Iraq. The young man felt empathy for the plight of the Iraqi people and languished at having had killed Iraqi soldiers. It was at that point in time that Goodman points out that McVeigh began seeing the US as a global bully. And nothing stirred rage in McVeigh more than bullies.
And yet for all the horrific details that Goodman recounts of McVeigh’s meticulous series of actions, the viewer is left wondering: how could a young man fall so heavily, moving away from common human decency? If McVeigh did not want to participate in the Army’s murderous actions in Iraq, then how could he kill innocent civilians, including children? It is precisely this sense of emotional contradiction from McVeigh that makes “Oklahoma City” a fascinating look into the psyche of a disturbed individual.
Perhaps what is most salient about Goodman’s film is the obvious similarities between the 1980s’ rise of right-wing American white supremacy and today’s growing popularity of the alt-right movement. In a political climate that beckons its citizens to close off borders, build up walls and vilify entire swathes of races and religions, it seems that the message in “Oklahoma City” is abundantly clear. Maybe we should be worried that this could happen again. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” And with the growing risk of fake news already showing its fangs by essentially causing the D.C. pizzeria shooting, it seems that Dr. King’s words will go unheeded in a world that desperately needs to listen to them.
“Oklahoma City” premiered in Doc Premieres section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Opens in NY (and LA) at the IFC Center on Feb. 3. Premieres on PBS on Feb. 7.