Waco: The Rules of Engagement

I was only 13 when the tragedy at Waco broke out, and even now much of what I think of when I recall the incident is snippets of David Koresh from evening news footage, images of tanks set against the backdrop of a large civilian compound, and wounded ATF agents being carried to ambulances.  When I saw this movie pop up on my Netflix queue the other day, I was immediately drawn to it, as I have always wanted to know more about just what happened during those early days of 1993 in eastern Texas.  And this movie delivers on that premise–perhaps more than almost any other documentary I have ever seen.

Documentaries can be as subjective as their creators want them to be, and footage, interviews, points of view, and even shooting locations can be manipulated to support any political agenda or other motive that the director has.  Extreme examples of this can be found in any of Michael Moore’s sensationalist films, which can only be called documentaries by the loosest possible definition of the word, and even in other works such as Morgan Spurlock’s faux-indictment of the fast food industry in Super Size Me, and Ben Stein’s biased look at intelligent design in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (which I thought was a good film, but I was fully aware of its political bent and, thus, the biased nature of the material which was being presented).  Waco: Rules of Engagement is surely guilty of these same transgressions to some degree, but without an opinionated narrator advancing the examinations being presented onscreen, and with so much of the footage taken directly from congressional hearings in the years following the tragedy, it lends a greater deal of credibility that many documentaries tend to lack.

This exploration of the Waco tragedy begins by investigating who the Branch Davidians were, outside of the context in which the world came to know them by way of evening news snippets.  They were, as the film shows through interviews and historical footage, a group of Christians who took certain passages of scripture out of context and built an entire eschatological theology around them.  From there, the film explores how Vernon Wayne Howell, a convert to the Branch Davidian brand of theology, gained enough followers to rally around him that he eventually became the leader of the infamous group housed in a compound on the outskirts of Waco.  The television interviews of Howell, who would later change his name to David Koresh, show a man who is entirely convinced of his point of view, but not megalomaniacal or even charismatic–simply compelling in his teaching, despite how misguided they were.

Interviews shown in the film of fellow Branch Davidians also show a group of people who were simply looking for answers, and for whatever reason, found them in Koresh and the end-times theology of the Branch Davidians.  Where the film truly shines, though, is in showing how mishandled and bungled the attacks on the compound, begun by the ATF and carried to a bloody end by the FVI, really were.  Through extensive footage taken from the aforementioned congressional hearings, this film documents incredible lapses in the chain of command, confusion on the part of the agents on the ground, and shows how the situation grew beyond control and ended up in the tragic killing of not only Koresh but dozens and dozens of his followers, many of whom were women and children.

I give this documentary high marks for showing the brutal reality of what went on during those two months, and not exonerating Koresh and his followers from guilt (they were stockpiling massive amounts of weaponry, which Koresh planned to use to defend his compound in what he saw as an inevitable, prophesied, battle between his followers and the forces of Babylon), it gives them a fair shake in the court of public opinion.  For 15 years I thought of the Branch Davidians as “Waco Wackos,” but the reality is that they may have been led astray in their beliefs, but no one, especially women and children, deserves to go out in a plume of fire brought on by government agencies with little more motive than an axe to grind.

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