Marking the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, MSNBC’s “The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist” faces a genuine made-for-TV conundrum. Presented 45 hours of extremely compelling audiotaped interviews with Timothy McVeigh, the producers illustrate that material through “computer recreations” that vaguely resemble a motion comic — and make McVeigh as rendered look like a dead-eyed character in “The Polar Express.” Visually, the result is more distracting than illuminating, but the net effect provides a timely look at domestic terrorism, particularly given the unsettling rise in the militia movement.
Hosted by Rachel Maddow, the documentary draws from Buffalo News reporter Lou Michel’s access to McVeigh during his prison stay, prior to the bomber’s execution for an attack that claimed 168 lives and injured hundreds more. Those sessions eventually became the foundation for a book Michel wrote with Dan Herbeck, “American Terrorist.”
The interviews find McVeigh wholly unrepentant for his crime, and painstakingly detail its planning and aftermath. To his victims, all McVeigh can offer is that they “have to accept it and move on” and “get over it,” which is enough to make you want to dig up his ashes and put him to death all over again.
McVeigh’s antigovernment fervor is chillingly reminiscent of a surge in militia groups since the 2008 election. The focus, however, is on McVeigh and what motivated him to perpetrate such a coldblooded act, with the final (and most powerful) section devoted to the bombing’s victims, putting human faces on the decimated building facade etched into our minds.
From a production standpoint, it’s easy to sympathize with MSNBC’s dilemma. As intriguing as the tapes are, TV isn’t radio, and one could rationalize the computer images as a kind of “artist’s rendering.”
Still, the recreations leave behind their own sensation of queasiness by injecting a little too much artifice into an otherwise-absorbing documentary — one where the subject is stomach-turning enough.