Remember when you were a little kid and some wise-ass at school
took it upon himself to reveal to you the truth about Santa Claus?
Didn't you feel awful afterwards? Didn't you wish you could go
back in time to recover your blind but comforting innocence? You
may feel the same way after viewing the contaminating truth behind
one of this year's Oscar-nominated documentaries, Waco: The
Rules of Engagement.
Long gone are the days of Nanook of the North (1922), America's
first feature-length documentary to achieve commercial success.
No longer content to act as simple educational filmstrips, documentaries
are evolving into harsh, probing examinations of the world around
us. Last year spawned two of the most powerful documentaries in
the last half decade--Paradise Lost: The Killings in Robin
Hood Park and Licensed to Kill. Paradise Lost
examined the brutal murder of three young children in Arkansas
and the subsequent parody of justice which convicted three misfit
teenagers of the killings. Licensed to Kill, meanwhile,
delved into the frightening minds of murderers convicted of attacking
and killing homosexuals. If these films represent the trend in
modern documentary filmmaking, then this year's successor is surely
Waco--a searing examination of the 1993 FBI attack on the
Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, which resulted in the
deaths of 76 men, women and children.
Filmmakers Dan Gifford, William Gazecki and Michael McNutly aren't
a bunch of militant propagandists out to paint a smear campaign
against the U.S. Government. Dan Gifford, who acts as Waco's
executive producer as well as one of its writers, served as a
news reporter for ABC News, "The McNeil/Leher News Hour"
and CNN. As a result, Waco: The Rules of Engagement unfolds
as a frighteningly sober, almost scientific examination of what
went wrong five years ago in that small Texas town. Like Paradise
Lost and Licensed to Kill, Waco is on an unrelenting
scrabble for that elusive reality behind the headlines.
First off, the filmmakers begin by examining so-called "cult
leader" David Koresh. Perhaps the most frightening revelation
in Waco is that Koresh doesn't come across at all as the
raving lunatic whom the FBI demonized on a daily basis. Koresh
wasn't an unstable egotist who sought solace and validation in
any oddball religion that came down the pike. Koresh was born
and raised a Davidian--a religion whose origins stretch back to
1934. Far from a Jim Jones figure with a fly-by-night theology,
Koresh was a seemingly devout man with a lifelong understanding
of the Biblical scriptures. Although the American public viewed
him as a sexual maniac with dozens of dazed followers in his hypnotic
thrall, the truth seems to stray far from that officially endorsed
conception. Certainly Koresh and his followers held beliefs far
different than those of the general populace. But, as Waco
posits, isn't the Constitution intended to protect such
Waco deals largely with the congressional hearing that
resulted from the botched FBI/ATF raid on the Branch Davidian
compound of Mount Carmel but intersperses those hearings with
home video shot by the Davidians during the siege. The FBI provided
the Davidians with a video camera and asked them to document themselves.
The resulting tape provides a portrait of a frightened but quite
lucid group of humans--not one of whom seems overwhelmed by, or
even entirely convinced of, David Koresh's reputed divinity. They
come across, more than anything, as a bunch of scared students
bewildered as to why an armed government agency would suddenly
assault them. It's no wonder the FBI declined to release the tape
to the media for fear it would create public sympathy for the
The Branch Davidian home movies are not the only new evidence
uncovered by the makers of Waco. The harrowing 51-day siege
is recreated step-by-step, and what originally looked like a monumental
screw-up on the part of the government emerges as a colossal and
asinine series of intentional cover-ups. Janet Reno and the other
government wags would have us believe that the Davidians, of their
own volition, shot each other and immolated themselves--an assertion
that becomes patently ludicrous as Waco unspools its evidence
in an elegantly edited ballet of compare and contrast. While the
director of the FBI continues to assert that "not a single
shot was fired by the FBI during the entire siege," we are
treated to infrared images (taken by the FBI's own surveillance
planes) which clearly show countless rounds being pumped into
the Davidian compound.
At one point, a psychiatrist called to the scene admits that,
at first, his biggest worry was how to comprehend the psychology
of those inside the compound. As soon as he arrived, however,
he realized the real concern was the psychology of those surrounding
the compound. As a Sherman tank plows into Mount Carmel, knocking
down walls and collapsing inhabited buildings, an FBI loudspeaker
blares out: "We are not attacking you! This is not an attack!"
The entire thing would be a farce worthy of the Marx Brothers
if the results had not been so damnably tragic.
This is a bold and incendiary piece of filmmaking. The frightening
realization is not that the government is capable of such a cover-up
but that such a blatant and sloppy whitewashing of the truth could
be read as gospel for the past five years. If only a major television
network had the intestinal fortitude to broadcast this film during
prime time so that millions could see the other side of the coin.
Some say truth is beauty. It is not. Truth is a heavy, crushing
burden that is rarely, if ever, pretty. Welcome to the other side.