‘An American Bombing’ Explores the Mainstreaming of Political Extremism

‘An American Bombing’ Explores the Mainstreaming of Political Extremism

An American Bombing: The Road to April 19th is a sober and joyless documentary about the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, whose 29th anniversary was marked this week. Directed by Emmy-winning Mark Levin and executive-produced by TV journalist Katie Couric, An American Bombing deftly combines archival footage (including home movies and eyewitness-news reports) and interviews with key figures in the incident to create a cautionary tale about how anti-government violence has moved from the fringes and become mainstreamed over the past 40 years.

The film is thus much more than an account of that singular catastrophic event, which killed 168 people, including 19 children in the building’s day-care center, making it the nation’s bloodiest example of homegrown terrorism. It takes a wide-angled view of things, focusing not only on convicted perpetrator Timothy McVeigh but also on a violent culture of right-wing extremism in America fueled by white supremacy and so-called Christian nationalism.

April 19 is considered a holy day of sorts in the calendars of these extremists, who cannot forget that the first “shot heard round the world” in the American Revolution was fired by a band of dissidents on April 19, 1775. Fixated on this long-ago incident in Lexington and Concord, these self-proclaimed patriots believe that Americans today must also be prepared to take up arms against a deep state that they view as a modern reincarnation of the old British colonialist project.

An American BombingMike-Boettcher Investigative Reporter and War-Correspondent, ©Courtesy of HBO

More than anything else, this gut-wrenching documentary shows how Oklahoma City was but the final destination in a hate-filled trajectory that included earlier confrontations in Ruby Ridge and Waco. An American Bombing examines in painstaking detail how the rhetoric of rage and resentment has corroded the national conversation about the very meaning of our national identity.

What is notable about An American Bombing is the way so many competing narratives are seamlessly woven together. There’s the character of Timothy McVeigh himself, who is traced from his childhood in Buffalo through his execution in 2001, with a focus on his military service during the Gulf War and his subsequent radicalization. There’s a sympathetic portrayal of his father and grandfather, blue-collar workers who are portrayed as casualties of American industrial decline. Most touching, perhaps, are the interviews with family members of the victims of the bombing, enabling viewers to glimpse the various strategies they’ve employed to assuage their grief.

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kathy Sanders Whose Grandsons Died in the Oklahoma City Bombing, ©Courtesy of HBO

There’s also a detailed account of the complex legal strategies deployed during his trial in federal court, as told by some of the lawyers involved with the case. The film also explores  the parts played by the FBI and Justice Department in the events along the road to Oklahoma City, including the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Former President Bill Clinton makes a cameo appearance to offer his take on these events as well as his efforts to ban assault weapons.

To the credit of its director and producer, An American Bombing weaves all these threads together into a seamless whole. The result is a captivating though painful narrative about the nightmarish aspects of what was once proudly hailed as the American dream. It is a grim and troubling cautionary tale for this crossroads moment in the nation’s history.

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Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, ©Courtesy of HBO

Rating: A

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Here’s the trailer of the film. 

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