"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" is a grim, disturbing documentary, but a necessary and important one. It makes a strong case that the government's involvement in the Waco incident was a Bill of Rights nightmare.
The documentary, which opens today at the Roxie, tells the story of the 51-day standoff between the FBI and David Koresh's Branch Davidian sect in 1993 -- but the version it tells is not the one most Americans heard on the 6 o'clock news.
The tone is calm. The strategy is methodical. But the film's gravity only underscores the startling nature of its allegations. Over the course of 165 minutes, this painstaking documentary guides its audience to an understanding of the tragedy that's far different from the impression left by the congressional investigative committee.
According to the film, the Branch Davidians did not commit suicide by setting themselves on fire; rather, the FBI accidentally started the fire by penetrating the compound with CS mist, a highly combustible form of teargas.
Even more chilling, the film contradicts the FBI's assertion that it did not fire a single shot on the compound. It shows heat-sensitive infrared tapes that suggest, at least to two independent analysts, that the Branch Davidians were shot at with automatic weapons as they were trying to escape the burning building.
The documentary brings together TV news footage and uses liberal excerpts from the congressional hearings on Waco, parts of which were aired on CNN.
More revealing are audio excerpts of the FBI's negotiations with the Branch Davidians; home video footage of the FBI agents clowning around on tanks; home videos of the Branch Davidians, recorded within the compound during the standoff; and the heat-sensitive tapes, originally recorded by government surveillance planes.
According to the film's executive producer, Dan Gifford, the filmmakers were given these tapes by the defense attorneys for the surviving Branch Davidians. Gifford and co-executive producer Amy Sommer Gifford have worked in television news, while director William Gazecki has had a long feature film career as a sound mixer ("The Rose," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit").
"Waco" takes the viewer through the tragedy from start to finish. The film makes the case that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents' initial assault on the compound was made with an eye toward publicity. The Branch Davidians were apparently tipped off to the assault when TV news vans arrived a full 30 minutes ahead of the ATF.
The standoff began four years ago today -- Feb. 28, 1993 -- when the ATF raid turned into a shootout. Each side claimed that the other started firing first. The film leaves that question open, except to note that a metal door, through which the first shots may have been fired -- and which would show the direction of the bullets -- has disappeared.
The film criticizes the FBI's handling of the negotiations and offers evidence that suggests that a break in the standoff had already occurred when Attorney General Janet Reno gave the go-ahead to launch the April 19 assault on the compound. "Waco" shows federal tanks knocking down entire sections of the compound and presents autopsy photos of mangled corpses.
Most damaging of all to the government's suicide theory are the heat-sensitive tapes. In two places a tank is shown depositing the combustible gas -- and in less than a minute, that section bursts into flames.
"Waco: The Rules of Engagement" leaves it to the audience whether to believe Democratic Representative Charles Schumer of Brooklyn, for example, who postulates that the 27 Branch Davidians who died from gunshot wounds either killed themselves or were shot by one another.
It also doesn't say whether one should be more moved by the government's charges of alleged child abuse, or by an autopsy photo showing the charred, distorted body of an 8-year-girl.
Viewers may not come away from "Waco" thinking that they've heard the last word. But they will come away with questions, and they might just come away demanding answers.
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