Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Waco: The Rules of Engagement

3.5/4

Not Rated (probable PG-13 for Violent and Disturbing Images)

I was born in 1988, so my memory of the disaster in Waco, Texas is next to nil.  My knowledge of what happened to the Branch Davidians was that it was a similar incident to Jim Jones and the People's Temple: a charismatic fruitcake brainwashed many people into worshiping him as a prophet and when they became violent, the government intervened and they committed mass suicide.  According to the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," nothing from that statement is true in any way, shape or form.

The Branch Davidians were classified as a cult, but as the documentary informs us, this movement, an off-shoot of the widely recognized Seventh Day Adventist part of Christianity, actually started in the 1930's.  And while David Koresh did consider himself a prophet, he wasn't the only one to do so.  Nor did any of the surviving Branch Davidians act in ways that are consistent with cult behavior.

More common misconceptions are challenged.  Yes, Koresh had sex with underage women.  But a local law enforcement official says that under Texas law, a girl can marry as a tween with parental consent.  Further, such actions were less Warren Jeffs than a part of their belief system, in which they believed that the prophet needed a certain amount of children to rule as council members in Eden.  Yes, they had weapons at Mount Carmel.  But a gun expert claims that Koresh and his followers frequented gun shows, and the weapons that they purchased are commonly seen as investments rather than instruments of war.  And as someone else puts it, it's Texas; everyone and their mother has an arsenal of weaponry.  The filmshows agrees that the Branch Davidians had strange beliefs, but shows that they were normal people nonetheless.  It reminds us of something that so many people tend to forget: even if we don't agree with them or think they are weird, they have the right to believe whatever they want as long as they obey the law.

The filmmakers argue that the Waco incident was a perfect storm: religious outsiders that were easy to spin wild accusations about and law enforcement organizations with their own agendas.  The ATF, we are informed, was looking for a publicity coup after a series of bungled incidents.  They saw this as an opportunity to get back on the public's good side and show that they're tough.  After they completely blew their handling of the incident, the FBI comes in and makes matters even worse.  With jumpy and excited agents (the outskirts were turned into a carnival of sorts and agents would test out their cool new toys, scaring the living hell out of the Branch Davidians, who were trying to find a peaceful way out), a desire for revenge after four agents were killed, and an utter disregard for tactics or common sense, what happened can only be described as a massacre.

I realize that since the Branch Davidians are commonly referred to as a cult that held strange beliefs (which, in a tragically ironic twist, had beliefs about the apocalypse that were completely in line with the actions of the ATF and the FBI), such views are challenging to believe.  Even while watching this, there was a part of me that was incredulous.  But the filmmakers use independent sources, from doctors, photographic evidence and some chilling 911 phone calls, to the inventors of the technology used in the incident, to illustrate their points.  Further, they cut this in with testimony from survivors, members of the ATF and FBI, and members of the Clinton administration, to show who lied (pretty much every governmental employee) and how.

"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" isn't the most professional looking documentary nor is it especially well put together.  The filmmakers do a poor job of setting the stage, and while the activities of the press sensationalizing the incident with words like "cult," "compound," and references to Jim Jones, little follow through is made.  The film would have been more effective had the filmmakers gone after them with the same vigor that they showed the law enforcement officials.

Documentaries get a bad rap.  I get that.  Because they are without character or story or scripts and special effects, people think that they're less of a movie than a classroom lecture.  With poor documentaries, that's sometimes the case.  Not here.  This riveting viewing about an incident where systemic government failure from top to bottom led to so much death and horror that could so easily have been avoided.  If nothing else, it shows that what happened in Waco was not a cult suicide but a crime.

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