The specific date comes at the very end of Oklahoma City, seen on the front page of a newspaper: June 11, 2001. That’s the day when Timothy McVeigh—the prime actor in the 1995 destruction of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, a bombing that killed 168 people and was felt miles away—was led to a small room in an Indiana penitentiary and executed by lethal injection.
Though by no means forgotten in the months and years ahead (when America turned its focus to terrorism of a global nature), McVeigh and his kind loom large in Barak Goodman’s thorough, ominous documentary, a crucial piece of historical excavation that implies a more lingering threat. Like no profile before it, Oklahoma City delves into McVeigh’s planning: his collection of explosive fertilizer, his recruitment efforts and his habitual visits to gun shows and sites of wacko, tin-foil–hat conspiracy like Area 51.
But the film’s real value, placing it in the same admirable category as the epic, wide-angle profile O.J.: Made in America, is the full hour Goodman spends before McVeigh even shows up. During this prologue—itself a minihistory of homegrown hatred—you might find Oklahoma City poorly titled, but you will never find it boring.
Goodman begins in the early ’80s, when a combination of government mistrust and ineffective trickle-down Reaganomics gave rise to a new strain of militarized malcontent. We learn about The Turner Diaries, a virulently racist piece of sci-fi literature by William Luther Pierce, who posited full-on revolution against Jews, gays and blacks. First published in paperback in 1978, it became these people’s alternate Bible.
Inexorably, Oklahoma City winds its way through the twin powder kegs that drew McVeigh to their flames: the 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, at which federal agents killed Randy Weaver’s wife and 14-year-old son; then the ruinous 1993 siege at Waco, Texas, brought to life in smoking, chaotic footage.
McVeigh, a washed-out Special Forces candidate, was only on the sidelines. But he would come to be inspired by these incidents, the underpinning of the alt-right. It’s unclear how the new administration views these extremist groups (more than 500 are currently being tracked, the doc claims): as threats, voters or potential cabinet members. But you must see Oklahoma City, if only to know the enemy. They’re not stuck at the airport.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf