Film Review: Oklahoma CityInstead of telling a single feature-length story about one of the worst terrorist attacks in American history, this clear-eyed, “Frontline”-ish documentary sketches out the latticework of paranoia and hate that led up to it.
For all the news ink and televisual garble that was expended on the roiling subculture of American right-wing extremists during the 1980s and ’90s, surprisingly little of that time was spent on their roots in blatantly racist white supremacy. Because the militias’ anti-government and pro-gun rhetoric was louder than its white-separatist ideology, that was the half-story which much of the media led with once the militias’ fantasies of all-out conflict began to spark actual bloodshed. Barak Goodman’s thorough, dramatic documentary about the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist attack doesn’t make that same mistake.
Oklahoma City starts with a horrific audio clip. At just after nine in the morning on April 19, 1995, a water board meeting was being held in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Then comes the horrible rending sound of Timothy McVeigh’s ammonium nitrate fertilizer bomb exploding in the rented Ryder truck on the street below. The explosion, which sheared half the building off, was felt miles away. The scene looked like something people at the time would be watching from Beirut, not sleepy Oklahoma. As one police officer says in the film’s opening segment, “It’s not supposed to happen here.”
Instead of digging right into the bombing and its aftermath, Goodman pivots quickly away from Oklahoma. Like an episode of “Frontline,” of which Goodman has directed several, this documentary uses the titular event itself as almost more of a bracketing device. The real story here is what led up to the bombing that is still surprisingly rarely referred to as a terrorist attack. Cutting to Idaho in the 1980s, Goodman sketches out the state’s role as a haven for white separatist groups like the Aryan Nations, who we see parading in ersatz Nazi uniforms around their pine-forest-hidden compounds. White Christian separatists who saw the United States federal government as a corrupt, Jewish-led cabal dedicated to their destruction, these separatists believed themselves to be the true American patriots and vowed to “declare war” on the U.S.
As ever with bands of conspiracy-minded men who believe the whole world is aligned against them, eventually one or more are going to decide that instead of just celebrating Hitler’s birthday and fulminating about minorities, Something Needs to Be Done. Buttressed with exposition from experts like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok and journalist Leonard Zeskind—whose Blood and Politics is a definitive history of the American neo-Nazi movement—Goodman then tracks a couple of these more action-oriented extremists who brought federal and media attention to the white supremacist underground. One was Bob Matthews. Inspired as so many others by the infamous and shoddy white-revenge fantasy novel The Turner Diaries—in which the heroes battle sinister minorities and their accomplices in the government by destroying FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. with a massive truck bomb—Matthews led a splinter faction called The Order who robbed banks all over the Northwest before assassinating Jewish radio host Alan Berg in Denver in 1984.
The other was Randy Weaver. Another gun-obsessed white separatist, who had frequented the Aryan Nations compound in Idaho, Weaver became a hero to the movement in 1992 after U.S. Marshals tried to execute an arrest warrant (for illegal firearms charges) at his isolated mountain cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho. In the firefight that followed, one agent, as well as Weaver’s teenage son and unarmed wife, were killed. Not long after “Ruby Ridge” became a rallying cry for those who believed the government was going to take their guns and Bibles away, the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, became more fuel for the fire.
While a solid piece of documentary journalism throughout, Goodman’s film truly excels in its segment covering the Waco siege. As in the rest of Oklahoma City, Goodman weaves together archival footage and modern-day interviews to tell a gripping and tragic story. The Branch Davidians were a Seventh-day Adventist offshoot who had been in the area for a long time before David Koresh took over the group and started pushing a particularly Armageddon-minded theology that involved stockpiling massive amounts of illegal military arms. As with Ruby Ridge, the situation deteriorated after federal agents tried to execute a search warrant. Only this time, in February 1993, the Branch Davidians started a firefight that left four agents and five of their own dead. The months-long siege that followed finally ended with a full-on assault by the federal agents (this time with tanks) and the entire compound going up in flames; dozens perished, including several children whom Koresh had not allowed to leave.
Even though the Branch Davidians weren’t white supremacists, their apocalyptic Christianity and gun worship made them martyrs to the anti-government underground. There was even a rush of hyperventilating VHS movies purporting to tell the “real story” about the Waco siege—the clips Goodman includes here will look familiar to anyone familiar with similarly detail-mad yet utterly illogical documentaries claiming to tell “the truth” about 9/11. After the Clinton administration passed the gun-control Brady Bill later that year, so-called “militia” groups began sprouting all over the country. The film’s second-to-last segment details the evolution of Timothy McVeigh from eager soldier to disillusioned Gulf War veteran, conspiracy theorist, Turner Diaries and gun fanatic, and amateur bomb-maker. Goodman even digs up footage of McVeigh, on what the film calls his “odyssey” journeying around to various militia hangouts (gun shows, mostly), communing with like-minded souls outside Waco.
Goodman waits until the last stretch of Oklahoma City to call out the attack’s true tragic irony: For all of McVeigh’s fantasies about leading some glorious assault on a supposedly oppressive state, all he managed to do was massacre ordinary people going about their jobs. The most heartrending moments of this film come when witnesses and survivors describe trying to pull survivors out of the rubble, especially the daycare center, where 19 children were among the day’s 168 fatalities. While it must have been tempting for Goodman to veer off at many points during this bloody, enraging story to fill in more background and nuance or tie it to today’s resurgent white nationalism, by bringing everything back so emphatically to this point of senseless and bloody murder, his film does the story justice in the way that its victims truly deserve.
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