Oklahoma City

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgasser-Parker, Common Sense Media
Oklahoma City Movie Poster Image
Intense docu on terrorist Timothy McVeigh has violence.
  • NR
  • 2017
  • 102 minutes

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Positive Messages

Many Americans first suspecting that foreign agents had bombed the federal building were shocked to learn that an American was the perpetrator. So, the movie seems to warn us not to jump to conclusions. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that 500 militant white supremacist groups are active in the U.S. today, suggesting that other Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma situations might happen in future. 



Positive Role Models & Representations

Dedicated federal agents and other first responders rescue survivors of a horrific bombing. A doctor refuses to leave the bombing scene where he's trying to free a girl pinned in the rubble when he's warned that the rest of the building might collapse on him and the girl. McVeigh identifies with members of militaristic groups arming themselves against government intervention. He's enraged when such groups, who have been accumulating illegal stockpiles of arms and ammunition, are attacked.


McVeigh had no qualms about killing innocent people, declaring in a recording that the federal government would only pay attention if there was a high "body count." He killed 168 people, 19 of them children, and injured 600. Bloodied survivors and bodies are briefly seen as they are taken from the rubble of the destroyed building. Well-armed Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and scores of his followers and children burn themselves to death in 1993 when FBI agents attack their armament-filled Waco, Texas, compound with tear gas. Randy Weaver, a heavily armed Aryan Nation sympathizer, and his family are attacked in 1992 by the FBI after a long standoff near Ruby Ridge in Idaho. His wife and daughter are killed by FBI agents. McVeigh's punishment is cited: execution by lethal injection.


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What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Oklahoma City is a look at the notorious 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by a disaffected white supremacist gun enthusiast, Timothy McVeigh, and his army buddies. That act of domestic terrorism against federal employees injured more than 600 people and killed 168, 19 of them children in a daycare center. Some blood is seen in brief images of the wounded, but the movie doesn't dwell on visuals of carnage. Nevertheless, descriptions of the bloodbath by witnesses, survivors, first responders, and investigators are graphic and vivid. Government standoffs with white militarized groups previous to the bombing are described as well, in an attempt to explain the bombers' motivations. The movie provides an opportunity to discuss with teens the kind of rage that would motivate such a violent act. McVeigh's punishment is cited: execution by lethal injection.

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What's the story?

OKLAHOMA CITY traces the roots of bomber Timothy McVeigh's anti-U.S. government feelings back to his disaffection as a soldier ordered to kill Iraqis during the Iraq war and his love of guns dating to childhood. Untethered after dropping out of college, washing out of special training in the army and finding himself unemployed, he focused on widely shared perceptions that the federal government had badly botched FBI stakeouts at Ruby Ridge and Waco that ended in the violent deaths of white nationalists with large stashes of arms. He was inspired by the white supremacist fiction The Turner Diaries, which features "patriots" bombing a federal building as part of an anti-government revolt. Audio recordings from interviews with McVeigh suggest he had no remorse for causing so many deaths and that his goal was to create a substantial enough "body count" to alert the government that white supremacist factions were serious antagonists. McVeigh, in fact, hoped his action would incite a white supremacist overthrow of the government. A target of bullying at school, he saw the federal government as the greatest bully of all.

Is it any good?

This is an expertly reported, illuminating, and terrifying documentary that couldn't be more timely. In light of widely publicized protests and demonstrations by armed Nazis, white supremacists, and self-described racists and anti-Semites, this is an eerily relevant look at the evolution of a white American so enraged over his belief that the government was out to take his guns that he needed to bomb a building and take 168 lives.

Oklahoma City does its best to be even-handed. There's no doubt that what McVeigh did was deliberately hateful and inhuman. But the filmmakers definitely make a case for how badly the federal government managed the Ruby Ridge and Waco debacles, however inadvertently. McVeigh's tragic actions were empirically wrong-headed, but the movie does at least explain how someone of his misguided mindset would harbor the paranoid belief that the federal government was coming after people like him.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the beliefs of bomber Timothy McVeigh and his conspirators differ from or parallel those of Nazis and white nationalists and supremacists. Does Oklahoma City feel like a look at a historic episode from the past or a look at a continuing contemporary issue?

  • McVeigh viewed the government as the enemy, an entity trying to take away the rights of people who, like him, believe in white supremacy and widespread gun ownership. One person who survived his attack didn't see it that way, observing, "We are the government," just regular, hardworking people doing their jobs. Do you think that McVeigh had a valid point of view? Why or why not?

  • Based on descriptions in the movie of the mishandling by federal agents of the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, do you think the federal government could have handled those standoffs better and more peacefully?

Movie details

  • In theaters: January 21, 2017
  • On DVD or streaming: March 7, 2017
  • Director: Barak Goodman
  • Studio: PBS
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Character strengths: Courage
  • Run time: 102 minutes
  • MPAA rating: NR
  • Last updated: November 11, 2020

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