It’s hard to read faces, but voices are even harder to gauge. Timothy J. McVeigh, the anti-government extremist who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, had a calm, almost reassuringly matter-of-fact way of speaking. He could have been a building inspector, a driving instructor or a Persian Gulf war veteran, which, of course, he was, having earned a Bronze Star before he went completely off his head.
“See, with these tapes, I feel very free in talking ’cause I know you’re using the information appropriately,” McVeigh told a journalist in a prison interview. “Here, I’m just letting it all come out.” The reporter, Lou Michel, co-author of “American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing,” shared 45 hours of those taped prison interviews to MSNBC.
“The McVeigh Tapes: Confessions of an American Terrorist,” which will be shown on Monday, the 15th anniversary of the bombing, comes at a time when right-wing militia groups are on the rise, or at least more audible, and heightened anti-government talk is heating up anti-anti-government fervor. McVeigh’s descent into violence is presented as much as a cautionary tale as a commemoration.
“Nine years after his execution we are left worrying that Timothy McVeigh’s voice from the grave echoes in a new rising tide of American anti-government extremism,” is how the MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow, who narrates the film, puts it in her introduction.
But strangely, this film, which claims to be the first ever to present McVeigh in his own words, blunts its impact by relying on stagy computer graphics, and even an actor whose looks are digitally altered, to re-enact McVeigh’s movements. Scenes of this domestic terrorist in shackles during a prison interview or lighting a fuse inside a rented Ryder truck look neither real nor completely fake, but certainly cheesy: a violent video game with McVeigh as a methodical, murderous avatar.
Documentaries increasingly use technology, often to good effect. The History channel, which used to rely heavily on quaint, period-costume re-enactments (a shot of a quill pen writing on parchment, a tableau of soldiers firing muskets at close range), is expanding its virtual reach. “America: The Story of Us,” a six-part series about the United States that begins on Sunday, is visually thrilling but in a sensible, instructive way: computer wizardry, for example, peels a map of Manhattan today back to what the terrain looked like more than 200 years ago when the towers and strip mall of Kips Bay were meadows stormed by the British in 1776.
“The McVeigh Tapes” sometimes casts aside real material in favor of a faked re-creation. One catalyst for McVeigh’s terrorist act was the April 19, 1993, assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., that left 75 people dead. McVeigh visited Waco in March 1993, when it was under siege by government troops. By chance a student reporter, Michelle Rauch, interviewed him as he lounged on the hood of his car.
“He was very unassuming,” Ms. Rauch, who is still a journalist, recalls in the film. She explains that she didn’t know what to make of his words: “People need to watch what’s happening and heed any warning signs.” Ms. Rauch says she didn’t realize until a year after the bombing that her interviewee was Timothy McVeigh. “Well, when I went back and read that in my article, it gave me chills,” she says.
Most documentaries would show her notebook or a clipping of the actual newspaper article another odd scrap of fate in a real-life puzzle. This one, more focused on ersatz re-enactments, doesn’t.
And ultimately, the film doesn’t make full use of the audio tapes, though that could be because McVeigh’s tone was so dispassionate and even impersonal. He expresses no remorse and is impatient with the victims’ anguish. “Death and loss are an integral part of life everywhere,” he told Mr. Michel. “These people in Oklahoma that lost loved ones, I’m sorry. But you know what? We have to accept it and move on.”
The only time his voice grows animated is as he describes the moments before the bomb went off. “I lit the two-minute fuse at the stoplight, and I swear to God that was the longest stoplight I’ve ever sat at in my life.”
“The McVeigh Tapes” is instructive, but it is a history lesson that blends real materials and fake ones to illustrate the danger posed by fringe lunatics who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality.
THE MCVEIGH TAPES
Confessions of an American Terrorist
MSNBC, Monday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by MSNBC and Peacock Productions. For MSNBC: Mike Rubin, vice president, long-form programming; Scott Hooker, senior executive producer; Timothy Smith, senior producer. For Peacock Productions: Sharon Scott, executive in charge; Keith McKay, Benjamin Ringe and Knute Walker, executive producers; Toby Oppenheimer, producer.