Did we like it?
A sporadically gripping re-enactment of the senseless siege in Waco, Texas that ended up causing the deaths of almost 100 people.
What was good about it?
• Very early on the narrative pinpointed what would become the most significant forces in the ultimate tragedy – the twin monstrous egos of Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his religious mania and the authoritarian, dogmatic inflexibility of the ATF and later the FBI.
• After the ATF had been informed by their undercover agent, who had been unmasked and sent away, that the Davidians knew they were about to launch a raid, they still persisted with their plan that assumed the Davidians wouldn’t know they were coming. So when Bill Buford’s men scaled the compound roof to storm the armoury they were met with a hail of gunfire from all angles.
• Once that assault had failed, with deaths on both sides, the FBI was called in. And they almost negotiated a peaceful settlement after Koresh’s deluded ramble had been broadcast on Christian radio. Koresh had agreed to surrender when the broadcast had finished, but instead claimed that God had told him “it wasn’t the right time”.
• And a few weeks later, FBI chief negotiator Byron Sage met in the no-man’s land with Koresh’s deputy Steve Schneider and they reached an agreement that Koresh could continue to preach from prison and that the Davidians wouldn’t be evicted. But Koresh rejected these terms.
• But the final act of myopic pigheadedness belonged to the FBI who concluded that a peaceful outcome was no longer possible, so the numerous tanks that had been circling the compound for weeks punched holes in the building and fired in CS gas canisters. Koresh and his followers still didn’t submit even as their home collapsed around them. Somehow a fire was started – the FBI claims it was the Davidians, the Davidians claim it was an ignited gas canister – which soon gutted the whole compound, killing the women and 21 children sheltering in the basement. Koresh and Schneider shot themselves.
• The interviews with figures from both sides – Bill Buford of the ATF, Jeff Jamer who led the FBI operation, Byron Sage, the FBI’s negotiator as well as a number of Davidians who survived of the siege – added an authenticity to the film that we feared would be absent after a gap of almost 14 years. In fact, such an interval seems to have added a bitter edge to many of the perspectives; Buford and Sage in particular seem to resent the incompetence and heavy-handedness of their superiors while Jamer himself appears wracked with guilt.
• Kathryn Schroeder, whose husband was shot dead/murdered by the ATF as he tried to enter the compound after the first raid, who felt her distrust of the US government had been vindicated by recent events. “They’re just bullies, pushing their way into every corner of the world.” Far less perceptive were her foolish rants over Koresh’s munificence.
• The dramatic interpretation segued well with both the first-hand accounts and the archive footage from news crews. The actor playing Koresh managed to capture some of his self-delusion and charisma, even if he did look like Little Britain’s Lou. It also meant that, even though you knew the outcome, as the Davidians gathered to leave peacefully after Koresh’s message was broadcast on the radio, you still held out some hope for a peaceful conclusion.
What was bad about it?
• The film chronicled the event from a few days before it started, but this left many unanswered questions such as why did the ATF feel the need to launch an aggressive raid when there seemed to have been no prior lower key efforts to persuade the Davidians to disarm? And there was no further proof which side fired first in the ATF raid or what started the devastating fire that destroyed the compound.
• And one of the absurdities of the first raid was that it was only launched because the Davidians were in possession of automatic weapons, rather the semi-automatic weapons permitted under Texan law as if to say that it’s legal to have the capacity to kill 50 people in five minutes but 500 is prohibited.
• That even today, many of the ex-Davidians fail to see through the toxic veneer that their false idol cast over them. He beguiled them with his cogent but twisted interpretations of the Bible to convince them, or at least himself, that he was the son of God when he was actually brainwashing them for his own debauched ends. Each wedded couple had to end their marriage, and the wife was to be passed over to Koresh for his own carnal pursuits, pursuits that ultimately yielded 14 children (all of whom were sadly killed in the conflagration).
• As the siege ground on through periods of fallow activity, so the intrigue in the film floundered and was barely kept afloat by some first-hand account of the very few things that actually occurred between weeks two and seven.