Sundance Interview: OKLAHOMA CITY Director Barak Goodman

The director discusses his chilling documentary.

On April 19, 1995 a yellow Ryder truck pulled up in front of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. Inside the building were hundreds of federal government workers, as well as a day care and other community facilities. Shortly after 9am the contents of the truck, a mix of diesel fuel, fertilizer and other explosive components, detonated, killing hundreds.

Two decades on, the bomb’s impact as an act of domestic terror has been overshadowed by a far more publicized threat of international radicalization. Barak Goodman’s film Oklahoma City seeks not only to commemorate those lost but to connect the dots between earlier events at Ruby Ridge and Waco, Texas, Timothy McVeigh’s connection to right-wing anti-government groups, and how these same forces continue to be a concern long after the execution of this lone individual.

When the bombing occurred what was your initial reaction?

Like a lot of people I barely remember it. I do remember very clearly the shock because we hadn't seen very much like that. I think we had the embassy bombings in Africa, we had the barracks bombings in Lebanon, but those things were far away, they were in the Middle East. To have it happen here was brand new. That iconic image of the face of the building being sheared off? Those things were indelibly printed. Then I remember the other image, which I think a lot of people remember, is the first time [Timothy] McVeigh was paraded in front of the cameras, and that sort of feeling of, "Oh my God, he just looks like an ordinary kid." There's a moment in our film where somebody says, "It was a sense of betrayal, the sense that he's one of us." I do remember that feeling, that he's one of us and how shocking that was.

So you remember the distinct shift between the assumption that it was Islamic terror to the recognition that it was a citizen.

Yes. I mean everybody assumed it was Muslim terrorism. I did, the media did.

I’m guessing the first time I ever knew of the existence of such a thing as a truck bombing would have been the first World Trade Centre attack, when somebody drove a truck underneath, seemed like something new yet something that could be subverted.

That had happened but that had been a failed attempt.

So you think, "Oh, this is all truck bombs do." It’s bad, but not catastrophic.

Then, lo and behold, you start to hear of this Ryder truck. Well, we all know what Ryder trucks are, they're easy to get, you know? Then it turns out this is about fertilizer and is super easy to make [a bomb]. It was a series of revelations that made you finally understand that we have terrorists here and that they're capable of really terrible things.

Your film really does draw an extreme tight line between the right wing in this country and this terrorist act. Could you talk about how sensitive you were to dealing with going too far making a direct connect to these groups and McVeigh, something which at this stage is fundamentally unprovable.

I would argue that it's unprovable. First of all, I would take slight issue with your characterization and we have to be careful with these words the far right. I use it myself all the time but really what we're talking about is a movement that is outside the political mainstream altogether. So I don't want people to lump this together with traditional hard right conservatives, or anything like that. This is a separate thing. They would condemn them as much as people on the left or anybody else.

That said, you know, it wasn't hard to connect the dots in this case. They kind of connected themselves. The evidence that McVeigh was influenced, was kind of a product of this movement, is overwhelming. You don't really have to go any further than his absolute love and adherence to a book called The Turner Diaries, which was his Bible. He says this so many times that it's just obvious. He [even] sold that book. If you read that book, it is a white supremacist screed from the beginning and contains within it instructions on how to bomb a federal building. It's all there.

McVeigh himself says repeatedly in the jail house interviews we obtained and in many other venues that it was Ruby Ridge and Waco that caused him to want to commit this act. So as a filmmaker, if you're following this story, you have to go back there, you have to understand those events.

Has the contemporary version of that community adopted McVeigh as a martyr? In the way that they have with Waco’s David Koresh?

I'm not an expert on the alt-right and I don't want to pretend to be. What I do know is that right after Oklahoma City a lot of these militia groups disavowed him. Maybe it was a survivalist tactic more than anything else, [to] retreat so that they can survive. At the time the entire country was up in arms. Law enforcement was hunting them and it was a really hard time for them. Whether or not they secretly believed that he's a martyr, I don't know.

McVeigh certainly wanted to be a martyr. He saw this was the first blow in the second American Revolution. He lived for six years after the bombing, and was quite disappointed to see the movement essentially fizzle out. One could argue that we're seeing resurgence, I don't know. I do know that this movement never totally goes away. It only just retreats and comes back. You see it all through American history. It is one continuous line from us through the Red Scare through the Klu Klux Klan all the way to Shays' Rebellion. There’s this bitter hatred of the federal government.

When something is as sensitive as this, how, as a filmmaker, do you ensure that what you're accessing at all times is truthful rather than jingoistic?

It's all about reporting. You're putting your finger right on it - what was reinforced to us throughout this process was that this had to be grounded in really sound scholarship. There’s a lot of conspiracy theories around this story and there still are many people who believe McVeigh did not act alone and that there was a John Doe number two. We dove deeply into all of that evidence and all of that thinking, and there are disturbing coincidences and circumstantial evidence. But the fact is, we were very persuaded that the story, the FBI/government version, whatever you want to call it, is the truth. McVeigh essentially acted alone with some help of two old Army buddies.

Everything we did was deeply, deeply reported, and that's the only way you can be safe in a field like this.

One doesn’t need to be a criminal mastermind to wreak this kind of carnage.

We have this one chilling moment in the film where one of the FBI investigators explains that the John Doe number two that was identified by witnesses was a conflation, that he had actually appeared in the rental facility for the truck the day before and people had remembered him. And then you hear McVeigh come on and responding to a question from his jail house he says, "If I told you it was more than one, wouldn't that be scary? Because then those people would still be out there. But if I told you it was just one, wouldn't that be even scarier?" And then he says, "That's why the line, ‘You can't handle the truth’ is perfect, because it was just one. It was just me." It was chilling. And he's right. I mean it is absolutely chilling to know and we take apart how this bomb was constructed, how the parts were assembled, how much it cost to do it. It was easy. And we live in an open society and as long as there's people motivated by this, these things may happen. Now, federal law enforcement was asleep at the switch and they're no longer.

How were they asleep at the switch? What could they have done to prevent this?

That's a whole other film to be made. Basically they knew very little about this movement until '92 probably, until the Ruby Ridge thing happened. There was this group called The Order that appeared and started holding up Brinks trucks and murdering people. There were one or two FBI agents who even knew they existed. When that group happened, the slumbering beast started to wake up. Federal law enforcement started to pay some attention. And then Waco happened and you start to see a little bit more attention paid to domestic terrorism but really there were people tracking these groups and warning the FBI and other agencies that something was going to happen, and they were not listened. Whether that's 20/20 hindsight is a debatable proposition but certainly there wasn't a sense that there were people plotting against the government from within until Oklahoma City. Once Oklahoma City happened, then the blinders came off.

There's been a big political debate in this country about what you're going to name current modes of terror coming from the Middle East, whether or not you have to describe it as Islamic or not. Equally, there's an incredible reticence of that same group who refuse to call domestic acts - the murdering of abortion Doctors, Charleston - terrorism. Where, as a journalist, do you come down on that and, as an American, how does that frustrate you?

I think it's hard to just intellectually make the argument that an American who is radicalized by what he reads on the internet, who responds to ISIS, is any different than (Charleston shooter) Dylann Roof. Again, I'm not an expert on what's going on but just as a journalist today, looking at them, there are so many striking similarites between those two things. Roof was apparently radicalized by what he read on the internet from the extremist right. Many of the same tropes appear, so how do you make a distinction? They're both ideologically motivated. They're not motivated out of any animosity towards their victims. These are random acts of violence, meant to galvanize a wider reaction and they're meant to express something political. They're terrorism. I just don't see a difference.

Which leads to an even more chilling thing - If the notion is that in a free society all these ideas are able to propagate but certain ideas are dangerous, therefore we want to suppress the ideas, that's one option. But even if we did suppress the ideas, it's simply the case that those susceptible find another idea to act upon. It’s one thing to combat an ideological zealot, it’s another to recognize that there are those that wish to destroy society and will simply select from a menu of ideas, left or right, secular or religious, to justify their act of terror.

There are very complicated kinds of constellations of motivations in these people. Some part of it is political, some part of it is personal. Not everybody that believes in these things will actually act on them. In fact the vast majority won't. So why do these individuals step out and do these things?

In other words, the question of why did McVeigh act on this is hardly a simple one.

People spend millions of dollars trying to understand the psychological impulses. I think just as a layperson, as a journalist, looking at McVeigh's life, certain things appear common among these kinds of people. In McVeigh's case, a) he was very intelligent-I think that that's a common attribute-b) there's a sense of a kind of self-aggrandizement, there's a sense of having a destiny or a kind of big role in history. It doesn't square with the pathetic, small life that he was living. He was barely eking out a living, didn't have a lot of friends, wasn't making a big difference in the world, but saw himself as a great big figure. I think that really fueled him in some way and made him perhaps more willing to act. He had less to lose, he had no relationships really, he was estranged from his family.

These sorts of things are common among these people but I'm sure you can find exceptions. It's a mystery why this person decides to do something like this.

One thing that your film does powerfully is have first-person accounts, have witness accounts. Surely there was a reticence among some of speaking of their accounts.

We tried to get as many first-person accounts as possible from all perspectives. We got very good cooperation from law enforcement. We were able to talk to two people from within the Branch Davidians and they both gave incredible interviews which we had to shrink down to almost nothing because it ended up being too much about Waco. We could have done a whole other film on Waco and we are doing a whole other film on Ruby Ridge. We got Sara Weaver to open up, which was a long process, a process of trust building mostly done by my producer Emily Chapman. But yes, it took a lot.

Among the survivors and the first responders and the parents and victims and so on, they were very reticent to go back and relive this. This is so palpable and so real to them. We actually had a couple of them come see the film's premiere and they were just so shaken by it. They were deeply moved but they were also so shaken. It just made me understand how vivid it still is for them. We needed them and we worked on getting them to open up and talk but we also were aware of how difficult it was for them. We tried to be sensitive and tried to do it gently, but it's all still right there.

When does the need to be journalistically accurate and informative collide with the need to be entertaining to a general audience?

We need to tell stories that are engaging and which draw people in. I did a film on the My Lai massacre a few years ago which was similar. When you're dealing with events that still have this sort of explosive resonance in our memories you have to especially be careful about your journalism and your facts. I wouldn't have wanted to do this film as my first film. I mean you have to have the experience of going through a lot of filmmaking and understanding how to balance and how to funnel it into an engaging narrative that really pulls people in and makes them want to watch but is still true to the story.

Of all the nice things that have been said about our film since it came out, the thing that's meant most to me is that we heard from both Mark Potok, who's the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the two folks who are in the film who came out to Sundance, that we got the story right. That is hard to do and is extremely satisfying because this film will only live on if it is impregnable in that way. Otherwise those who want to twist it or want to find some conspiracy will pull at that thread and the whole thing will fall apart.

It remains to be seen but I'm hopeful that we did.