'Waco' images chill, its questions disturb

July 03, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

The Fourth of July weekend may be the perfect context for "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," William Gazecki's Oscar-nominated documentary about the 1993 standoff between religious leader David Koresh and the federal government.

Not that "Waco" is a feel-good movie about America. Rather, it is sobering evidence of how essential a free press and open dissent are to a functional democracy.

In presenting a chilling contrarian view of the events that transpired that spring, "Waco" may not be the final word on the encounter, which ended with a blazing fire and 86 dead. But it does raise crucial questions about the government and its disastrous handling of -- even complicity in -- the tragedy.

Using rare archival film of the Branch Davidians, interviews with attorneys and scholars, and C-SPAN video of the congressional hearings that followed the siege's fiery end in 1993, "Waco" convincingly suggests that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms manufactured the raid on the Mount Carmel compound in order to get favorable publicity before appropriations hearings; that the BATF and eventually the FBI continually lied during negotiations with Koresh and his lieutenants; and that the U.S. government never had control of its forces in Texas -- forces that became more unbalanced as time wore on and Koresh's resolve hardened.

As Harvard psychology professor Alan Stone puts it in the film, he went to Waco to study the people inside the compound, but when he arrived -- to the FBI blaring the cries of dying rabbits and Nancy Sinatra songs -- he began to wonder if he should study the people outside.

Using very little narration and a brooding, repetitive synthesizer score, Gazecki weaves a daunting amount of material into a surprisingly absorbing narrative.

By the film's grim last moments -- which feature grisly photographs of the burned and bent corpses of the compound's children -- it seems startlingly clear that, as one former FBI special agent puts it, the Davidians weren't victims of a suicide but of mass murder at the hands of their own government.

The centerpoint of the film's argument is video taken by the FBI using Forward InfraRed (FLIR) technology, a heat-sensitive night-vision system that American viewers first saw during the -- Persian Gulf War.

With the help of FLIR expert Edward Allard, the filmmaker plays -- and replays and replays -- the grainy images of a tank entering the back of the Davidian building, with bursts of light that Allard says represents machine-gun fire. Not only did the FBI fire on the tear gas-filled building, he adds, but one of its tanks deliberately ran over a Branch Davidian member.

Of course, this is the most explosive material presented in "Waco," and it's all the more gripping because the back side of the building was off-limits to the press, which was kept a mile away from the compound by federal agents. It is also a problematic moment, when filmgoers are being led through material they cannot interpret on their own. Even with such a convincing witness as Allard, the FLIR video -- although compelling -- may not be conclusive.

But "Waco" doesn't have to be conclusive to make its point, which is that the U.S. government still has a lot of explaining to do about the Davidian standoff. Filmgoers may doubt the FLIR material, and this humanizing portrait of Koresh doesn't put to rest lingering questions about his weapons collection (some would say stockpile).

But if "Waco" succeeds in leading filmgoers to ask tough questions of their own government, then long may it wave.

'Waco: The Rules of Engagement'

Directed by William Gazecki

Released by Fifth Estate Productions

Unrated (violent images)

Running time: 135 minutes

Sun Score: *** 1/2

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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