By Stephanie Zacharek
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You're not likely to come out of the bone-chilling documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement with the belief that David Koresh was angelic, or that he had no hand in the deaths of his Branch Davidian followers in Waco, Texas, in April of 1993. But, if you assumed that the subsequent brutality charges against the ATF were all baseless right-wing paranoia, the film may make you reconsider.
And in any case, strictly as a piece of cinema, Waco will leave you shaken up. It's an exhausting, deliberately sensationalist work. With recordings of children asking telephone negotiators "Are you gonna come in and kill me?" and video footage of the same kids waving bye-bye and endless angles on the burning compound and graphic, nearly unwatchable postmortem photos of the victims, including the smallest of them, it works you over pretty good. And it makes you admit that, one way or another, Waco is an important story.
That is of value in itself, because liberals and moderates can feel it's risky to get too worked up over Waco. By association, it feels too much like you're participating in the same maudlin rage that led to that shattered building in Oklahoma City.
The makers of Waco: The Rules of Engagement, however, hardly seem like reactionaries. The executive producers, Dan Gifford and Amy Sommer Gifford, come out of a background of, respectively, hard news (ABC, CNN, MacNeil/Lehrer) and tabloid TV (Maury Povich). The director, William Gazecki, won an Emmy for postproduction sound-mixing on St. Elsewhere; that seems to be the high point of his career prior to Waco (which was nominated for, but did not win, an Oscar this year).
Of course, just because the film may not be right-wing manipulation doesn't necessarily mean it's not left-wing manipulation. And in certain respects, that's what it feels like. The filmmakers work a bit too hard to soften the image of Koresh, to distinguish him from the likes of Jim Jones--the film acknowledges, but seems dismissive of, the convincing charge that he was a compulsive statutory rapist.
Gazecki and the Giffords also seem rather too eager to cast the Davidians, a breakaway End-Times sect of the Seventh-Day Adventists which had existed since decades before Koresh was born, as a legitimate religion rather than a cult. They skimp, for instance, on the grisly details of Koresh's violent clashes for control of the sect with a man named George Roden, who in 1987 ordered that a deceased member's body be exhumed so that he and Koresh could compete at trying to raise the woman from the dead. Koresh reportedly declined the proposal, but one wonders if this juicy episode was omitted from the film because it would make the Davidians seem too "fringy" for sympathy.
Apologetics on Koresh's behalf hurt the film, because they're off the point. His guilt or innocence has little to do with the case which Waco makes convincingly: that the ATF agents began the raid as a reckless publicity stunt at appropriations time, and that, stung by the Davidians' resistance, they may have ended it as a deliberate massacre in revenge. There's a particularly sickening shot of an ATF flag which the agents ran up the Davidians' flagpole after destruction of the compound, which suggests the frantic machismo, the terror of threatened potency (on both sides, admittedly) that led to the bloodshed.
The video footage of the preparation for the raid suggests a strong weekend-warrior element to the ATF's mentality. The phone negotiator, who's often astonishingly frank with the Davidians he's talking to, acknowledges this himself in one recording: "The guys that gravitate toward, you know, riding in tanks, jumping out of airplanes and stuff like that are a little different mindset than you or I, right? So when they get a chance to use a Bradley . . . Hey, let's drive this baby and see how it works . . ." When these "Bradleys" finally start crashing through the walls of the compound, while an amplified voice keeps repeating, "This is not an assault," it's like we're watching some sort of Orwellian, apocalyptic sci-fi.
The filmmakers present forensic evidence--much of it in the form of infrared video footage--which they claim shows that the agents started the fire deliberately and shot sect members who were trying to flee, although the FBI, which by this time had taken over the operation, claimed not to have fired a single shot during the final raid. Even for those of us who may mistrust federal law enforcement, such charges are difficult to accept, simply on a human level.
Yet this interpretation of the evidence seems plausible--plausible enough, at least, that it didn't deserve the angry dismissal it received from the Democrats during Congressional hearings. Even though all those pasty, thin-lipped Republicans mourning the Davidians wouldn't have given a shit about them if Koresh and his followers hadn't loved guns and hated taxes, the Dems still come off worse than anyone else in the film--it's upsetting to see this sort of blindly partisan grandstanding from one's own party.
Still, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it was the suicidally dilatory Koresh, more than anyone else, who sealed the fates of the Davidians. Waco: The Rules of Engagement--which opens at the Valley Art Theatre on Saturday, April 18, just in time for the conflagration's fifth anniversary--makes it all too easy to believe that the agents wanted the Davidians destroyed. But it's just as easy to believe that David Koresh wanted the same thing. In any case, though fixing blame may have been the mission of the filmmakers, the result of their efforts was something more than mere indictment. It's a nightmare chronicle.
Waco: The Rules of Engagement.
Directed by William Gazecki.
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