Reviews · TV

‘Waco’ Reminds Us of the Incompetence of the US Government — In the 1990s

Cult leader David Koresh comes off like an American hero opposite the federal clowns storming his castle.
By  · Published on January 25th, 2018

Cult leader David Koresh comes off like an American hero opposite the federal clowns storming his castle.

Another week, another limited series revisiting a 1990s news story. This time it’s a dramatization of the attempted siege and subsequent standoff against the Branch Davidians outside Waco, Texas, in 1993. Told over six episodes, Waco stars Taylor Kitsch as the religious group’s leader, David Koresh, and Michael Shannon as the FBI’s chief negotiator during the incident, Gary Noesner. The former is portrayed, at least in the first half of the show, as an innocent man of faith among a family of good-natured followers, most of them women and children, while the latter is also shown as a reasonable character, the sole agent of logic and humanity amidst a government made up of thugs and morons.

“Who do you call when it’s your own government attacking?” asks recent joiner David Thibodeau (Rory Culkin) on the first day of battle with the feds. Sure, the Branch Davidians had a stockpile of guns in their Mount Carmel Center compound, and sure, Koresh was committing polygamy and statutory rape as the messianic patriarch of a cult, but they were busy minding their own when the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms accidentally started a deadly shootout during what officials had planned to be a heroic media opportunity for the sake of saving the agency in the wake of its mistakes in the Ruby Ridge siege. Nothing like a botched operation meant to make up for another botched operation.

Waco begins with a depiction of the earlier incident, when Randy Weaver and his family resisted government agents in Idaho with tragic results. It’s there we meet Noesner and Agent Richard Rogers (Shea Whigham, once again playing a no-nonsense member of law enforcement with a constant look of constipation), head of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. They clash over the handling of the siege, because Noesner believes conflicts should be primarily tackled through talks, and he’s concerned about the increased militarization of his and other agencies that results in deaths like those of Weaver’s wife and son. When they both turn up at Mount Carmel after the ATF’s misguided debacle, we can expect more tension.

But this isn’t really a show where you can count on the character-driven moments to satisfy their promise. As scripted by the Dowdle Brothers, makers of the movies Quarantine and No Escape, with Salvatore Stabile (TV’s Revenge), Waco is a show mainly concerned with the plot and action of this true story. The dialogue is stale when it’s not just expository, and any scenes that seem interested in the characters, interested in people and their feelings, reveal themselves to be more setup for what will transpire rather than being about those moments themselves. And without such interest in the characters, there’s no room for any performances to stand out. That’s where this series really stands apart from the Ryan Murphy (The People vs. O.J.Feud: Bette and Joan) brand of history-based event programming.

The first three episodes are also directed by John Erick Dowdle in a plow-through manner. The Waco siege lasted 51 days, after all, so why wouldn’t its telling here feel so rushed within scenes and fragmented overall? And yet the first two episodes also take their time leading up to the more action-packed third. Starting with Ruby Ridge means we’re provided some much-needed context for the point-by-point historicism of the series, yet this prelude for the fed’s side of the story is undermined by being intercut with loose and shallow introduction to the Branch Davidians. Kitsch does get more time to shine as Koresh, though, and he’s likable enough in the role despite, and perhaps benefited by, its lack of complexity.

Of course, some viewers will find the simplistically sympathetic portrayal of Koresh and his followers to be a problem. But more than necessarily championing the Branch Davidians, Waco really plays like a platform for anti-government sentiment. Specifically it’s a reminder of the incompetence, discordance, and misconduct of the feds during these particular events that happened 25 years ago. There’s nothing but on screen titles to keep the portrayal at a distance from how things and thinking are at today, however, and the only way the government could look any more like buffoons, barbarians, and jackasses in the series is if the ATF and FBI sequences were soundtracked with “Yakety Sax.”

Given the apparent bias against the feds, especially in showing ATF agents as definitely having caused the start of the shootout and generally acting irresponsibly, how Waco depicts the start of the fires that ended the whole thing will be interesting to see, as their origins remain one of the most controversial and debatable parts of the story. For such a plot-point-driven series based on actual events, there remains a fair level of curiosity granted to the audience regarding what is shown, how it’s presented, and why. This all could have been done with the kind of unknown actors that appear in documentary dramatization segments, rather than employing stars like Shannon, Kitsch, and John Leguizamo, as an inept undercover agent.

Not to mention the talented but not-quite-famous supporting cast members among the Branch Davidians ensemble, including Supergirl star Melissa BenoistAndrea Riseborough (Black Mirror‘s “Crocodile” episode), Paul Sparks (House of Cards), Demore Barnes (American Gods), Julia Garner (Ozark), and Annika Marks (The Fosters). Recognizable faces from TV are appealing in a way that makes up for their characters’ absence of depth, but they can’t help us to care about these underwritten (or underrepresented) people and what happens to them. Unlike all the children and babies shown to be in the cult whom we will be sad about when the time comes.

Waco is poorly written historical drama but never any worse than traditional TV movie and miniseries productions. The thing is, we’re in an era of television where we expect greater quality, especially when actors better associated with movies are involved. This is faux prestige TV, and it will likely fool some viewers into thinking it’s actually great instead of mediocre. And as with any series focused on plot, never mind if there are books, an Oscar-nominated documentary, and now Wikipedia to provide details, it’s a hard one to give up. But it requires no real attention, easily watched passively or as background, which should make for a cursory appreciation of its conservative viewpoint and framing of one of the US’s biggest boners.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.