From the opening titles that traces photos of white supremacist leaders to Timothy McVeigh’s mugshot, Barak Goodman’s “Oklahoma City” documentary links America’s rising white supremacist movement to McVeigh’s 1995 act of terrorism. It’s a compelling argument, and builds a case that the worst of what’s inside American borders is just as frightening as the evil men outside them. While Goodman’s feature doesn’t focus our recently inaugurated president, it serves as a blunt reminder of what has happened, and could happen again, when misinformation is spread to dangerous, angry, homegrown radicals.
The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil pre-9/11, and Goodman’s interpretation of its lessons examines how America’s security priorities have shifted since. Domestic terrorism concerns, even in an age when school shootings regularly prompt second amendment debates, are often overridden in national security conversations by fear of foreign threats.
“Oklahoma City” doesn’t deny foreign threats, but makes a strong case for reversing that mindset. Goodman uses the first hour of his 101-minute analysis to examine how conflicts at Ruby Ridge and Waco, TX between white supremacists and the FBI created an anti-government rallying cry for alt-right extremists. The public perception of those disputes facilitated the introduction between right-wing gun enthusiasts and militant white supremacists, while manipulated news footage and the Brady Handgun Prevention Act of 1993 (pushed through by President Bill Clinton) combined to foster false concern that the government was coming to take people’s guns.
Featuring dozens of interviews with authors, journalists, and law enforcement officials, the film crafts a telling snapshot of a growing movement, starting with Robert Matthews and the Aryan Nations. Goodman uses archival footage of meetings, speeches, and more to provide a clear picture of what these people stood for and why it worried law enforcement. Of course, today shots of swastika armbands and the Nazi salute don’t feel as dated as they did even two years ago, thus providing the documentary an immediate and disturbing relevancy.
Goodman bounces between a researched account of what led to the bombing and first-hand accounts of the bombing itself. He splits up his film’s chapters — “The Spark,” “The Flame,” etc. — with survivors, family members, and FBI agents remembering what happened. Some stories serve as simple exposition to explain how it felt, where they were, or what happened next. But others are painful recollections of intense trauma, such as a doctor’s retelling of how he had to amputate a young girl’s leg to free her from the rubble.
Such inclusions can make “Oklahoma City” seem unnecessarily mawkish, especially when the footage and information are familiar. The documentary’s easily digestible and frankly affecting structure is more potent when dealing with the bombing’s cause and effect. The information provided by an array of experts on what aggravated McVeigh speaks for itself in a way that the day-of stories do not.
It’s about an hour in when Goodman starts digging into McVeigh, and that’s when the film finds its payoff. After breaking down the bomber’s motivations, plan, and execution, Goodman adds an epilogue that’s all the more powerful for its brevity.
“There was no massive conspiracy,” says writer and human rights activist Leonard Zeskind. “But the idea that Timothy McVeigh was a lone killer is wrong-headed because it absolves the movement from which it all sprang. […] Tim McVeigh was not on his own. He was a creation of the white supremacist movement.”
The movement is instrumental to the film’s relevancy as America sees white supremacists gain increasing prominence. Fear of violence in any form has kept citizens on edge as the hate groups celebrate the coronation of a man they endorsed. Such concerns are summed up in the film’s succinct final statement:
“I have hope this will never happen again,” one of the survivors says in voiceover, as 1995 Oklahoma City residents gaze at the devastated federal building. They clearly remember the past, and Goodman graciously ends on the hope we won’t repeat it.
“Oklahoma City” premiered in Doc Premieres section at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.