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Sundance 2017: ‘Oklahoma City’ – Our terrifying past has become our terrifying present

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The explosion in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995 remains the largest domestic attack on U.S. soil to date. The opening of Oklahoma City plays recorded audio from a meeting taking place in the Murrah building just before the explosion. It’s a haunting introduction into an event that still resonates today. Barak Goodman’s chilling work frames itself around the the fateful day, but investigates the larger connection the event had to the Ruby Ridge standoff and Waco, and how those incidents, along with a resurgence in white supremacy groups, influenced Timothy McVeigh into planting the bomb at the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Even if you already know plenty about these events, Oklahoma City proves that their is more to learn from and about them.

One of the more frightening aspects about Oklahoma City is how much you almost empathize with McVeigh in the beginning of his disillusionment. He’s fighting over in the Gulf war, but can’t figure out why he’s out there killing innocent people. After returning home and witnessing the Ruby Ridge and Waco standoffs, his disillusionment turns to terrorism, and he becomes part of the wave of Nazi sentiment that surged in response to those events. Another influence is how much time he ended up spending with the white supremacist movement festering in gun shows — that’s how McVeigh was making his living during his preparation of getting all the bomb parts together. It details how all these militia movements sprung up in the wake of government standoffs, sucking in people who thought that the federal government was going to take guns away. The white supremacist movement capitalized on this growing distrust of federal government, just as they have recently over the Bundy Ranch standoff and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge siege.

Our nation is sadly no stranger to these kinds of armed standoffs, with each of the previously-mentioned Bundy Ranch and Malheur events coming out of the same white nationalist anti-government sentiments that churned in Ruby Ridge and Waco. It’s a terrible cycle that seems to repeat itself, with a waxing and waning of white supremacist militias presence in our nation. It’s definitely waxing right now in the age of Trump, with a good chunk of his supporters coming out of the woodwork of white supremacy. So how do we go about killing a cancer such as this? Goodman doesn’t have that answer, nor should he be required to. But Oklahoma City is an urgent call that the events of our past have application to how we move forward today, and that this nightmare of history repeating itself must be treated with serious attention.

Goodman paces Oklahoma City expertly, giving the film the feel of a edge-of-your-seat thriller in how truly terrifying it all is. I was looking over my shoulder as I walked to my car after the screening; Goodman ignites an urgent paranoia about the times we live in. It’s got a fiery wake-up call feel to it, even though it’s talking about events more than 20 years in our past. As it turns out, our past is terrifyingly similar to our present. Oklahoma City comes to us at an especially prescient time, and it knows it. It never makes direct connections to the resurgence of white nationalism and this alt-right bullshit, but it doesn’t have to. It’s like it can feel you making those connections yourself. It’s the sort of film where you’d just love to sit down with the filmmakers and talk with them for hours about the whole thing. Goodman and his team do an excellent job of feeding you all this data, and I suppose one of the marks of a great documentary is that it leaves you wanting to know more about its subject. Oklahoma City sparks your conscience, revealing the terrifyingly urgent prospect of how much our past is just like our present.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about how chronologically weird the Fast and Furious franchise is.

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