Waco dramatizes a colossal and deadly series of real-life mistakes

There’s a certain morbid satisfaction—uncomfortable to admit, but that’s probably the right word for it—in watching the events of a tragic fuckup play out more or less exactly as you expect. Like watching a car crash in slow motion, there’s nothing to be done save for rubbernecking as the grim reality unfolds, replete with gruesome loss of life and can-you-believe-this-is-happening shock. The attendant finger-pointing during and afterward, on the part of all involved, is just the predictable scrum of participants playing out their respective roles, the expected reaction of anyone not wanting such tragedy weighing down their conscience.

Waco, the splashy kickoff miniseries for the new Paramount Network, isn’t exactly a fount of period-accurate recreations. Despite the true-life hook and hewing to a you-are-there unpacking of the events surrounding the government’s assault of the compound at Mount Carmel in 1993, fudged and altered details big and small prevent any sense of exacting historical record, which may be for the best with a still-contested narrative of events. (It doesn’t help that the government continues to admit almost no culpability, despite numerous pieces of evidence laying much of the blame at its feet—meaning the doorsteps of the FBI and the Bureau Of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms And Explosives.) Changing a bullet-wound injury from a wrist- to a gutshot, for example, may not affect the overall dramatic momentum, but it does throw a wrench into efforts to present the story as possessing historical verisimilitude.

Which is a shame, because if ever there were a stranger-than-fiction story waiting to be presented in all its messy realities, this is it. Waco follows the key players on both sides of the religious massacre, tracing the events that led to such an unexpected controversy and cause célèbre for government-overreach watchdogs throughout the country. The basics are clear enough: The Branch Davidians were a Christian sect (cult, if you’re feeling less generous) that lived largely off the grid in rural Texas and was led by a charismatic young zealot named David Koresh. After it became known that Koresh had counseled celibacy in his followers, claiming for himself the sole right of sexual intercourse with women in the compound (including with underage girls, prompting statutory rape charges), the ATF used suspicion of illegal firearms on the property as a means to launch a raid. However, the group was tipped off about the impending raid, and thanks to a convergence of bad decisions and impulsive actions, the ensuing firefight killed both ATF agents and members of the sect. Following a 51-day standoff that saw a series of increasingly uncertain negotiations between the religious zealots and the FBI, a second assault ended in a fire that wiped out the compound, killing everyone still inside.

With that wealth of source material, Waco crafts a sturdy if inelegant study of how it all went so wrong, aided by almost uniformly strong performances that work to sell merely adequate dialogue. Topping the cast is Taylor Kitsch, who makes Koresh into a charming and relatable demagogue, a man who spends 90 percent of his time playing the everyday roles of folksy preacher and devoted friend and family man, only occasionally tipping his hand as to the degree of megalomania and sexual-predator tendencies within. (Recruiting an affable young man played by Rory Culkin, Koresh explains the celibacy rule for the men, saying, “I have taken on the burden of sex for everyone.”) His followers are a mix of zealous and skeptical, some going along with Koresh as much for their belief in the tight-knit community as for his apocalyptic teachings, while others claim to see God working through their Southern-drawl messiah.

But the entire ensemble brings its A-game, a host of character actors and stars bringing to life the Branch Davidians and the government agents convinced of their just cause. Michael Shannon plays Gary Noesner, the negotiator and lone noble man in a nest of vipers at the FBI (perhaps represented as so morally upright because the miniseries is based in part on his book Stalling For Time). Supergirl herself, Melissa Benoist, plays spouse Rachel Koresh with a mix of warmth and steely mettle, demanding others unquestioningly follow the lead even as she doubts her husband’s actions. John Leguizamo is heartbreaking as Robert Rodriguez, the undercover operative sent to keep tabs on the compound and whose warnings go unheeded by his superiors. Shea Whigham, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Sparks, and more all sell the moral ambiguities and human drama of the situation, even when the script reduces their characters to one-note ideological mouthpieces, like Whigham’s gung ho FBI agent who represents the shoot first, negotiate later attitude toward which the entire agency is shifting.

“We’re militarizing,” Noesner regretfully tells his wife about the FBI, in one of the rare ethical stances taken by the show, which to its credit largely forgoes the easy condemnations of Koresh and his followers. Instead, its moments of sputtering disbelief are saved for the top brass at both the ATF and FBI, which in the point of view of Waco, made an almost stunning series of miscalculations, through a combination of poor planning and willful macho posturing. Indeed, the closest thing to the voice of reason is Shannon’s beleaguered negotiator, all thousand-yard stares and sighs of regret as he tries to steer his agency away from its emerging emphasis on violent resolutions to potentially peaceful standoffs. (The series begins nine months ahead of time, with the shoot-out at Ruby Ridge—which also killed unarmed civilians—becoming an embarrassment the ATF hopes Waco will counteract on the public relations front. Oops.) Meanwhile, Culkin’s David Thibodeau (whose own account of events makes up the other primary source the screenplay relies upon) is the pragmatic but empathetic image of upright decency within the walls of the compound, an innocent who can’t seem to fathom why anyone would be shooting at them.

Given that both the script and direction (the latter by John Erick Dowdle, who shares credit with his brother, Drew, for the former) are often middling examples of solid but unremarkable filmmaking, the first couple episodes have a real “when do we get to the fireworks factory” feel, the slow and deliberate build hampered by perfunctory character development and clunky foreshadowing. But once the third installment launches into the opening raid on the compound, the frenetic pace and unreliable narrators on both sides make for tense and exciting television. The lack of strong visual perspective, which weighed down the Dowdles’ previous film, No Escape, here works in the story’s favor, the close-quarters shoot-out disorienting viewers and characters alike with editing that mimics the bursts of gunfire whose sources are never fully discernible on either side. There’s still a failure of spatial geography—it’s never clear where anything within the Mount Carmel location is relative to anything else—but the cast picks up the slack, anchoring the camera’s confusion with believably distraught responses to the ensuing madness.

A few oddball character beats enrich the story beyond the just-the-basics approach on display throughout: Koresh, playing old rock covers in a local bar; Rodriguez, torn between his job and the friendly entreaties of the Davidians, awkwardly dancing at a church wedding; the local sheriff, gobsmacked by the lack of foresight displayed by the heavily armed government presence invading his quiet neighborhood. In every case, the actor elevates the material, raising passable storytelling to a more compelling and charismatic level. Anchoring it all are Shannon’s haunted visage and Kitsch’s insecure messianism, opposing sides of events spinning far out of control of either’s purview. Koresh may have made the fatal decisions that doomed his followers, but as Waco argues, there’s more than enough blood for everyone’s hands.

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