It’s been over 20 years since the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995 by Timothy McVeigh, and Barak Goodman’s documentary “Oklahoma City” attempts to condense an extraordinary amount of information about this act of domestic terrorism into a feature-length running time.
Goodman, who has previously made films about the Scottsboro Boys and cancer, does not shy away from showing us very tough footage of the bombing as well as photographs of the children who were killed or injured.
“Oklahoma City” begins with an audio recording from inside the Murrah building that ends when we hear an explosion; we then see what happened to the building, a third of which was blown away, and we hear from some of the first responders at the scene. Goodman moves back in time and shows us footage of Richard Girnt Butler, a white supremacist who preached to small groups of disaffected people while standing in front of Nazi swastikas.
The FBI started to watch these groups closely after a series of bank robberies, and this led to a fight with a white nationalist named Randy Weaver in 1992 that claimed the lives of Weaver’s wife and son and a federal agent. This came to be known as the Ruby Ridge standoff.
Goodman then moves forward to the bombing in Oklahoma City again and shows us more footage of the way people were crushed and how one woman had to have her leg amputated. President Bill Clinton, about whom Goodman made a four-hour documentary in 2012, terms the bombing “an act of cowardice and of evil,” but there are no immediate leads, and many think that it must have been an attack that came from some faction in the Middle East.
Then the film jumps back in time again, to detail the siege in Waco, Texas, in 1993 when federal agents attempted to oust cult leader David Koresh from his compound. This caught the attention of young McVeigh, a former army officer who was an enthusiastic reader of “The Turner Diaries,” a 1978 novel that has often been described as the Bible of the racist far right in America.
If there is a problem in “Oklahoma City,” it is that so many of the strands of this story could be made into their own movies or episodes. (Goodman directed a separate feature about the Ruby Ridge standoff that will air in February on PBS.) The director’s structuring of the material is effective and even shapely, but by the time he gets to Koresh and the cult in Waco, this movie is so jam-packed with information that it starts to feel over-loaded.
Among the tragicomic details here is the fact that federal law enforcement played Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” over and over again (among other noises) to get the cult members to come out and surrender. The connection between the Rudy Ridge gunfight and what happened in Waco barely exists, yet McVeigh and his poisonous fellow travelers linked them to further their own anti-government views. In the minds of McVeigh and others he knew, the federal government was anti-white Christians and was about to attack them and take their guns away.
This is the point in the film when McVeigh himself starts to come into focus: He grew up in Pendleton, New York state, near Buffalo and was a skinny kid who was often bullied. Sent to the first Iraq War in the early 1990s, McVeigh found himself killing Iraqis and wondering why he was doing so. He couldn’t find a job when he returned home, and so McVeigh wound up driving all over America and attending any gun show he could. The link between the white nationalist groups and gun shows is made very clear here.
McVeigh wanted to be a martyr, and he received the death penalty; he was executed in June 2001, just a few months before the attacks of Sept. 11. At the end of “Oklahoma City,” both law enforcement officers and people who lost family members in the bombing offer up some conclusions about McVeigh and his place in our history, but this is a subject that needs and deserves treatment as a much longer film or series.
As it stands here, “Oklahoma City” is certainly well made and relatively searching, but it can only scratch the surface of its very disturbing and complex subject.