There are certain documentaries — like, for instance, “O.J.: Made in America” — that heighten and clarify the past in a way that can shed revelatory light upon the present. That’s the sort of movie that “Oklahoma City” is. It’s a documentary about the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and the man who conceived it, planned it, and more or less singlehandedly executed it: Timothy McVeigh. Since both McVeigh and the chronology of this infamous and unspeakable massacre (168 killed; the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history) have been covered in abundant detail before, you may wonder what a fresh look at the events could possibly add to our knowledge. The answer turns out to be a great deal.
Working with the kind of perspective that emerges only, perhaps, from the passage of time, Barak Goodman, the writer-director of “Oklahoma City,” lays out the complex story of how McVeigh came to be the righteous and violent sociopath he was. He saw himself as a freedom fighter going to war against the evils of big government, but back then a lot of us looked at him and thought, “Well, okay, it doesn’t matter what his ‘philosophy’ is — anyone who did what he did is certifiable.” Yet seen 22 years later, through the prism of detail that Goodman provides, McVeigh’s psychological evolution turns out to have so many genuine disquieting parallels with the anti-government fervor of today that the temptation to simply place his actions in a box marked “crazy” seems a lot less justified than before. It’s axiomatic that a mass killer like Timothy McVeigh was seriously mentally disturbed, but to watch “Oklahoma City” is to confront the unsettling question: How much can violent disturbance be stoked by the absorption of ideology?
McVeigh, born in 1968, was raised in upstate New York, and he’s portrayed, through a wealth of photographs and testimonials, as a grinning, raw-boned kid who loved shooting guns and hated bullies, because he was often victimized by them. When he fell into the military, it seemed the right place for him, but he was disillusioned with the Gulf War, in which he served as a sniper. Picking off the enemy didn’t give him the high he wanted, and that’s when he decided that the real enemy — the real bully — was the U.S. government.
He was not alone. The film goes back to the early ’80s, immersing us in the growth of the far-right movement that, at the time, was regarded as a fringe of the fringe: the white supremacists and gun-hoarding anti-government radicals who were gearing up like an amateur militia to fight a “war” for the soul of America. These were the rural forefathers of what has come to be known as the alt-right, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they’ve now attained a visibility and influence that trumps (pun intended) what they were then. But the “normalizing” of radical-right ideals isn’t simply about yesterday’s hidden extremism becoming today’s more open megaphone of hate. Even at the time, in ways that were not widely understood (and therefore seldom acknowledged) by the mainstream media, the far right was obsessed with making an enemy of government, and with alleged plots by a network of world banks, in ways that were already starting to bleed into the larger culture. They helped to plant the seeds for the Tea Party/Trump revolution.
“Oklahoma City” goes back to the two formative incidents that lit the fire of the movement. The first was the 1992 standoff between the FBI and Randy Weaver at Weaver’s hilltop cabin at Ruby Ridge in Idaho, where federal agents went beyond the justified use of force in killing Weaver’s wife and child (the family was living off the grid and refused to surrender its guns). The second incident was, of course, the 1993 standoff at Waco, Texas, between FBI agents and the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. Waco instantly passed into the realm of mythology: For 25 years, it has been an article of faith, among the NRA devoted and major sectors of the Christian right, that Waco represents the obscene intrusion of government into the lives of God-fearing good people who had every right to amass a stash of weapons. (Meanwhile, leaving aside the issue of whether David Koresh was a dangerous megalomaniac and serial statutory rapist, liberal common sense would say: When government agents arrive at your door accusing you of having illegal weapons, you need to surrender. That’s how society works.)
In the minds of many, Waco was an unambiguous government massacre, an interpretation stoked by the seductive 1997 conspiracy-theory documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement,” which premiered at Sundance. That movie suggested that the FBI had laid siege to the compound with incendiary devices. But in “Oklahoma City,” Goodman presents audiotapes of Koresh, at the moment of truth, ordering his followers to pour fuel over the premises, making a powerful case that the Branch Davidians had devolved, in their final days, into a suicide cult.
At the time, many followers of the far right made pilgrimages to Waco, and one of those people was Timothy McVeigh, who we see on the outskirts of the standoff selling white-supremacist bumper stickers. He had already become a regular at gun shows, which often mingled the NRA agenda with neo-Nazi propaganda, and his bombing of the Federal Building came exactly two years later. It was timed precisely, on April 19, to pay homage to the anniversary of the Waco conflagration — though McVeigh actually got the idea for his truck bomb from “The Turner Diaries,” the 1978 novel about a violent uprising in America that became a far-right manifesto (think Ayn Rand with petrochemical weapons). It climaxed with the hero using a home-made truck bomb to blow up the FBI building in Washington, D.C.
“Oklahoma City” goes deep into McVeigh’s planning of the crime — his gathering of fertilizer and high-powered fuel, his renting of a Ryder truck, his one glitchy mistaken signing of his own name — and into the alliance he formed with his Army buddy Terry Nichols, who grew increasingly nervous and ambivalent about acting as McVeigh’s accomplice. As you watch “Oklahoma City,” some of this stuff (surveillance-camera footage, bomb recipes) can’t help but generate a kind of hideous suspense. But the movie also shows us, as nothing has before, the aftermath of McVeigh’s crime, including the bloodied bodies of children being pulled from the wreckage (in addition to government offices, there was a day-care center in the Federal Building). McVeigh himself declared that the action required a high body count; otherwise, the government could just shrug it off and build another building. Any vestige of empathy had been destroyed in him. Yet what makes “Oklahoma City” a haunting experience is that the movie, in laying out the road that led to his humanity withering and dying, demonstrates a disquieting continuity between the anti-government wrath of Timothy McVeigh and the fervor of anti-government wreckage that has just been given a new credibility in America.