Feb 14, 2017

'Ruby Ridge' Revisits a 1992 Siege With Current Resonance

Vicki Weaver with her children
New York Times
February 13, 2017

In a distinguished career as a documentarian, Barak Goodman has examined a wide range of subjects, happy and sad. But there’s a thread that runs through films like “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” (which won an Emmy and was nominated for a best-documentary Oscar), “My Lai” and the recent “Oklahoma City”: an interest in moments when the promise of America is violently betrayed.

“Oklahoma City,” seen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and last week on PBS, is a meticulous, conventionally structured documentary that puts the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building — still the deadliest domestic terror attack in American history — in the context of a growing extremist movement with religious, racist and nativist roots. Mr. Goodman’s “Ruby Ridge,” being shown as part of PBS’s “American Experience” on Tuesday, is a companion to “Oklahoma City” but a different sort of film (even though it repurposes some of the same footage).

Focused tightly on one of the events leading to the Oklahoma City bombing, the hourlong “Ruby Ridge” is a vivid, personal account of the 1992 shootout and siege in which federal agencies surrounded the Idaho cabin of Randy Weaver and his family. It’s built around interviews with Sara Weaver, the family’s oldest child, who calmly relates her memories of events that are horrific regardless of which side of the political fence you see them from. Recalling when F.B.I. agents opened fire on the cabin, Ms. Weaver describes being hit in the face by fragments that she realized were pieces of her mother, Vicki, whose body would lie on the kitchen floor for the remaining eight days of the siege.

The Ruby Ridge story is in some ways the opposite of the Oklahoma City story. There was no threat of terrorism — Mr. Weaver just wanted to be left alone on his mountaintop, and the firearms charges that brought the government to his door raised entrapment issues similar to those in many cases against alleged Muslim terrorists today.

Mr. Goodman’s account is sorrowful but pointedly evenhanded, avoiding blame and giving credit to the controversial, publicity-friendly right-wing figure Bo Gritz for his role in resolving the conflict. The presence of Sara Weaver, though, sets an emotional tone — it’s impossible not to sympathize with her and by extension her family, even though who shot first remains murky. (A United States marshal and two Weaver family members, Vicki and her son, Samuel, were killed.)

In his paired films, Mr. Goodman draws a line from the Ruby Ridge incident through the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Tex., to the Oklahoma City bombing. He doesn’t venture beyond that, but given the timing of the films’ release, it’s tempting to extend that line through the rise of the Tea Party to the election of Donald J. Trump. In that context, a quotation from Sara Weaver — who is surprisingly sympathetic to the government agencies that besieged and decimated her family — takes on an extra relevance: “When you operate out of misinformation and fear, things can go wrong.”

American Experience: Ruby Ridge

Tuesday on PBS

A version of this article appears in print on February 14, 2017, on Page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Siege of a Separatist Family That Reverberates Today


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