Sundance 2017 and Beyond – ‘Oklahoma City’

Guns and Revenge

Oklahoma City

Dir. Barak Goodman, USA, 2017, 102 minutes


In New York at IFC Center and in Los Angeles at Laemmle Royal

Available from PBS

This week isn’t an anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place on April 19, 1995, but Barak Goodman’s film is topical enough. Timothy McVeigh, on the margins of American political extremes back then, was condemned (mostly) by public opinion, and by a court, and put to death. Now the white supremacists whom he supported have enough credibility to have a man pulling a few strings in the White House, and the gun rights supporters who nurtured McVeigh as the Iraq army vet made his way through gun shows are as powerful as ever. And what would you expect from a filmmaker named Barak?


Sound conspiratorial? Bear in mind that McVeigh, who bombed the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, scheduled the event to mark the US law enforcement attack on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, two years before, and that he read some of the same inflammatory books that inspire the Alt-Right today.  McVeigh didn’t just insist on his right to own a gun. He collected weapons, to be used or bartered for food when all hell broke loose at some apocalyptic moment in the future. He sold them to support himself. He was initially arrested for carrying an illegal weapon when he was stopped without a having a proper license plate on an Oklahoma highway. With Open Carry policies for firearms in many states today, police might not have had enough to hold him.

Get ready for something more than a profile of McVeigh and his victims, 168 of them, in Oklahoma City, which plays on PBS stations on February 7, tomorrow. Interviewees stress that McVeigh did not act alone, and they’re not simply referring to the army buddies who helped him get materials for the bombs.

Credit goes to PBS for broadcasting such a hard-hitting doc. For more context than you’ll get in a 90-miute distillation, get the under-appreciated and highly-informative book, American Terrorist (2002),  by Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck.

Here’s my Sundance review of Oklahoma City from Screen.

Oklahoma City takes us back to the bombing of a US government building in 1995 that killed 168 people, including many children. The grim documentary comes at a moment when extremists who support gun rights and call for violence against the US government are among the supporters of the new American president.

The attack in Oklahoma City should strike a chord among viewers of US television, where it will air next month (February 7). In a divided America, the heartfelt doc may be seen to be preaching to the choir of like-minded Hillary supporters who watch the Public Broadcasting System, yet it could catch on in foreign television markets where Donald Trump’s nationalism is fueling fear.

With archival video of stricken children and buried bodies than can be hard to watch, the doc visits the bomb site right after the explosion, amid massive concrete chunks that are piled atop the living and the dead. From testimony of first responders, survivors and families of the dead, we get a troubling picture of an attack that was intended to kill in vast numbers. The blast was fifty feet away from a day care center for children. A surgeon summoned to save a woman trapped in the rubble recalls completing a leg amputation with a sharp pocketknife when all medical instruments failed.

The film breaks away repeatedly from those apocalyptic scenes to suggest why and how the bombing happened. Director Barak Goodman shows footage of conspiracy-minded White Supremacist groups on the fringe of US politics, and considers armed confrontations with US law enforcement – covered extensively by the media – that killed some radicals and rallied many more.

One of those whom those clashes rallied was the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran angered by the deaths of 76 people in an FBI raid on a religious compound outside Waco Texas on April 19th, 1993. The Oklahoma bombing was on the second anniversary of that event, when McVeigh was 27.

Oklahoma City never strays too far from the dutiful expositional style of public broadcasting in the US – archival images, testimony from witnesses and experts, and the enduring grief of family members. At least one audio interview, with McVeigh in prison, is staggering. Knowing that he’ll be put to death, a remorseless McVeigh declares to journalists writing a book about him that he won his battle with the government, with a score of 168 to one. McVeigh had earlier told an army buddy who helped him that “you need to hurt them where it hurts the most, with a body count.”

One of the conclusions offered by law enforcement agents and journalists who examined the crime could also be incendiary. McVeigh, who frequented gun shows, visited Neo-Nazis and quoted from texts on anti-government violence, was not the lone wolf that he claimed to be, but rather a creation of the White Supremacist movement.

That charge won’t be taken lightly by the National Rifle Association, a powerful lobbying group for gun rights, or by the Alt-Right, an ensemble of nationalist campaigners that rose to visibility in the electoral campaign with its support of Donald Trump.

In Oklahoma City’s footage of bodies lined up in makeshift morgues, witnesses recall that the youngest casualties were seen as children of a broad community brought together by the tragedy. The doc, as it grieves for those losses, points to divisions in American society that are as glaring as ever.

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