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« Pictures from the Oscar Luncheon | Main | Annette Bening Joins the next "American Crime Story" »
Tuesday
Feb072017

Doc Corner: 'Oklahoma City' As Relevant as Ever

Like many of the best documentaries, Barak Goodman’s Oklahoma City isn’t just about one thing. In fact, despite its title exclusively and definitively referencing the bombing of a federal building – the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11 – Goodman’s compelling and ultimately very chilling and concerning film is about a larger swathe of domestic terrorism, detailing how the events of April 19 1995 were the inevitable culmination of an out-of-control spiral of white nationalism and anti-government revolt.

Despite the enormity of the event, the events of Oklahoma City have not been detailed on screen very often. For what reason that is, I’m not sure, but that absence of films (non-fiction or otherwise) would already be enough to allow this Sundance-premiering film extra weight and deserved attention. But in a depressing coincidence, and the reason Goodman’s film is as relevant 22 years later as it is, the wait to make a film has allowed the circumstances of the day, elements of the case that may have been forgotten or lost amid the debris, to hold a greater significance.

Watching Oklahoma City in 2017 just weeks after the inauguration of a president who rose to power on the back of racism, Nazism, and anti-government anger is an alarming experience given the perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, was inspired by the rise of white power initiatives and an all-consuming hatred of America as a bully on the world stage. An act of terrorism by an American, not the Middle Easterners that many suspected and falsely reported as being behind it (sound familiar?), that struck at the heart of a country killing 168 people and awakened the country to the growing tide of internal terror that many in this country seem to have yet again forgotten about in fear of the foreign.

Beginning with audio recording of the bombing as it happened and footage of the aftermath, Goodman and his editors, then shuffle us back to the events of Ruby Ridge (the spark) and then, more importantly, Waco (the flame) that inspired a push into the mainstream of white nationalism and militia activism by gun-toting so-called patriots (the same as today, but with the fancy name as the “alt-right”). In fact, it’s well into the film’s runtime before McVeigh even shows up, detailing his life as a bullied school student and then as a soldier in the Gulf War where he witnessed first-hand America’s military cruelty to a vague idea of an enemy.

It eventually details McVeigh’s radicalization not by the internet as so many white men are today (as so wonderfully detailed in Abi Wilkinson’s recent must-read article in The Guardian), but by his infatuation with the text The Turner Diaries, his attendances at gun shows that acted as unofficial Nazi/KKK rallies, the production of “alternative fact” propagandist right-wing documentaries like Waco, The Big Lie (a film even shown at McVeigh’s trial), and his association with a subculture with tendencies towards conspiracy theories and those who feel personally victimized by American policy that they see goes against them as true Americans of the heartland. You might almost call it a bubble. 

That Oklahoma City is timely isn’t the only reason why it works, however. It’s collection of archival footage is excellent, particularly those of the Ruby Ridge protests that are especially alarming for how easily they could be mistaken as 2017 not 1993. And similarly to Ava DuVernay’s especially smart choices in 13th, the talking heads amassed by Goodman are all valuable experts whose input to the history and the manhunt give Oklahoma City a potently propulsive energy. With only 102 minutes to work with, the film is efficient yet also extremely detailed, juggling its multiple strands with finesse. One can only imagine how much further they could have gone if they had the same length and scope of O.J.: Made in America.

Unlike the recent Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing, a recent HBO documentary that chose to focus more on the aftermath than the build-up and ultimately disappointed with its lack of investigative bite (ironic considering it was produced in association with The Boston Globe), Oklahoma City offers insight and allows us to understand not just how the bombing came to be, but the building blocks of the world we live in today. McVeigh wanted to detonate a revolution in the people he identified with – 22 years later and 15 after his execution, the most troubling thing of all may be acknowledging that he succeeded.

Release: Currently getting a theatrical qualifying release in NYC and can be seen on PBS’ “American Experience”.

Oscar Chances: Possible, certainly if its themes continue to resonate through the first year of the new presidency. It’s release, however, has been oddly quiet in buzz considering how relevant it is.

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Reader Comments (8)

I had no idea this film was coming but timely it most certainly is. Especially since trhe new White Nationalist regime has sneakily dumped White Nationalists from the terrorism watchlist. despite them murdering more people in the US than Islamic terrorists.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It is playing on KOCE (southern CA) TONIGHT, 2/7/17.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMary Clancy

A weird tangent, but there are so many right-wing conspiracy documentaries online now, it's become hard to find even the Oscar-nominated 1997 documentary about Waco. Someone has even uploaded an alternative doc to YouTube with the same title.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Walber

Nat: WOW.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

"White Nationalists" have killed more people than the 3,000 people mudered on 9/11? I think not. Is this another "alternative fact?"

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark F.

Yeah, dropping all forms of terrorism other than ISIS/Middle East from the watchlist makes this film even more important. How could anybody see the devastation of these events, even if they are 22 years ago, and think that white nationalists don't need to be watched like hawks. Unless, that is of course, the people making policy are white supremacists themselves.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Mark, I'm not sure what you're saying. Nobody has said what your comment implies. I said that the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11 was the Oklahoma City bombing.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

Domestic white terrorism is what America was founded on.

February 7, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

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